My Life in Snakes

Cathryn Hankla Click to read more...

Cathryn Hankla is a Professor of English at Hollins University. She also edits poetry for The Hollins Critic and is the author of eleven books of poetry and fiction. Her works include Last Exposures (LSU, 2004), The Land Between (Baskerville, 2003) and Poems for the Pardoned (LSU, 2002). Her work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, The Missouri Review and Blackbird, and she was winner of Shenandoah’s 2010 James Boatwright III Prize in Poetry.

My knees recall a watery buckle whenever I remember my encounters with snakes, their undulations across my path, their many permutations. Once, in early summer I nearly stumbled upon an adolescent copperhead a foot long and as big around as a dime. It had moved into my storage shed, following the food chain. When I saw it, I did something without thinking.

LAST WEEK I was out spit-shining the country property because it’s on the market. Picking up the last remnants of shriveled oak leaves wedged between the heat pump and the house, I had one of those very human moments when you find yourself alone surrounded by nature. There’s a certain stillness I’ve come to recognize that means you are being watched. The human is object not subject; the gaze of nature turns back, or the silence of nature is held in suspense as you stumble into it. Late autumn chilled the air, and just past my left foot a young copperhead lazed on a warm orangey-brown slab of flagstone, perfect cover for the snake, as rock and snake share the same mottled color. The snake’s head tensed up, sensing in my direction. I glanced to check its pupils and confirmed that they were elliptical like a cat’s. There was no mistaking this narrow fellow for a
nonpoisonous variety.

The copperhead was very near, but I worked my way around it without scaring it off. Stealthy in my motions, I dashed inside for my chef’s knife, afraid the snake might slither too far off if I trekked all the way to the shed for a hoe. The knife was one of those heavy cleaver jobs best wielded by professional cooks that amateurs keep in their kitchens for inspiration. My chef’s knife had come with a German-honed set, and so far I’d only used the paring knife.

Leaving out the details, I used the big chopper on the copperhead, knowing they usually travel in pairs and hoping this one was still young enough to be dating around, but old enough to have wandered far from its nest. Seeing it so close to the foundation gave me a shiver. I wasn’t certain where it had nested.

I wish I could say that I regret having done it, but the last thing I need is some potential buyer getting spooked as he walks up the stairs to the back deck. I genuinely hate that I killed it without even a nod to the big picture of the life cycle of all of us creatures here below, but I have to accept that I prefer the snake’s death to the possible theft of a customer. This is probably a good sign that it really is time for me to leave country living behind. When I first moved from the suburbs, I was not capable of killing a mouse, let alone a snake. I carried all ladybugs and stinkbugs outside, leaving the spiders be and puzzling over the ants, large and small. Clearly, country living has not been the constant pastoral, the peaceable kingdom I once imagined. And I’m not necessarily more peace loving for having experienced its conditions. The first thing I saw when I moved to the country was a bunch of slaughtered hogs hanging on big hooks at the side of a barn. My new neighbors smiled and waved as I drove by.

THE DICTIONARY PROVIDES that our North American copperhead appears after Copernicus and before its capitalized variation. Copperhead was a derisive appellation applied to anti-Lincoln “Peace Democrats,” northerners sympathetic to the South during the Civil War. The Knights of the Golden Circle was a Copperhead secret society. It’s a term I’d never heard until I consulted Webster’s to begin my elementary education beyond what practical experience had already taught me about a certain serpent: copperheads live in rocky areas and favor thick underbrush; they eat small warm-blooded mammals for the most part, but will eat aquatic life and insects if pressed. How small were those mammals? I wondered. Most active in late afternoon and early evening, copperheads can grow to four feet in length, but average two. I cling to averages. That last fact bothered me a good deal.

Now we hear that snakes originally walked around on numerous feet, that there was no slither to the snake primeval. Snake derives from what it means to crawl. I can’t help but picture snakes on all fours scuttling across the floor. It gives me a funny image of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Was it more like a centipede that tempted Eve? Not much of story. I prefer my dog or cat, familiar mammals with furry paws.

The coloration of copperheads approaches hazel with chestnut brown markings. Bands taper across their spines like saddlebags or the hourglass. Shadows speckle their pinkish to white underbellies, and, yes, they do sport blunt-nosed copper-colored heads that taper like arrows on narrow necks. Aside from their slit eyes, the arrow shape of the head also means poison.

The rubbery oblong eggs I found in the rock pile along the drive were those of the black snake, famous for climbing trees. I’ve watched one wrap my nearest jack oak, spiraling gradually toward a nest to filch eggs or baby birds. A few times I tried to unwrap it from the trunk on its way up and managed to toss it into the brush with my walking stick, but the black snake always came right back, persistently after chirps in the high tree branches. I knew black snakes were good for eating rodents and for keeping away the poisonous snakes, so I didn’t disturb the eggs I found sprinkled in the rocks.

Copperheads are born live and emerge from a viscous pool of something akin to the primordial soup. I’ve seen copperhead afterbirth shimmering with alien hieroglyphics, black words scribbled in eight-inch snakes at the center of the goo. Until I saw this, I thought they came out of eggs.

ONLY AFTER I tossed my shed intruder by its tail out of reflex with one garden-gloved hand did I learn another salient fact, or maybe two: 1) I had done something foolish, and 2) As we sat around a table deep into dinner conversation much later in the summer, one of my companions reported that her husband had discovered a young copperhead in their house and been advised by the county extension agent to swiftly kill it, because the babies come equipped with a more lethal supply of venom than their parents.

Venom means the snakes’ survival and ignorance of it perhaps my death. I downed some more wine as I considered my luck at not having been bitten. My foolish left hand quivered in my lap with my napkin. I had twirled that little sucker from under my feet without a second’s hesitation. This is probably what ultimately led me to chop the autumnal copperhead in two with the chef’s knife several years later. I’m not really out for nature’s blood. I believe in karma and try not to create the bad sort. I know enough to stop and think about what goes around.

After having flung it far from me with one hand, I found my little copperhead the following day, edging a kindling box in the very same shed, perched with head up sensing the air when I disturbed its lair for my garden tools. I determined then to reorganize the kindling, to destroy the snake’s habitat or hunting ground instead of the snake. I spent the better part of a steamy summer afternoon dumping boxes of wood into a plastic garbage can I situated behind the shed and firmly lidded. Something I’ve learned by experience is how attractive copperheads find wood, especially stacked lumber or firewood where mice nest. Everyone loves to hang out in the kitchen.

I’ve not seen that very snake since, but I do not fail to give a stomp on the shed floor before grabbing or replacing a tool. I peer up into the rafters, even though I’ve heard that copperheads do not climb, because I’ve seen them sunning atop lumber piles, and I doubt they make fine distinctions.

“WELL, WELL!” CONCLUDED Max O’Rell, upon discovering that the snake he thought he was in bed with, in a rural town in Australia, was really his trusted walking stick: “Is it possible for a man to be such a fool!” (“My First Snake,” The Ladies’ Home Journal, 1894). Since our very first encounter, copperheads have had a tendency to make me look and feel stupid. As a consequence, I do not trust them to behave as they should. Before I entered first grade, I could tell a snake from a worm and had seen a copperhead wriggling along the floor of our foyer. It confounded me, but not because I did not recognize it for what it was. My own reptile brain was hard wired for recoil even though I could not correctly pronounce its name. I was left with another mumbled word that was almost as unwieldy in my mouth, since I had trouble with W’s, too. After running outside, I announced to my mother, who was busy sunbathing, as people in the sixties felt justified in doing, that there was “a big worm” in the house. She urged me to just pick it up and throw it out the door.

I was not a squeamish child, but luckily my instincts – better then than now – did not allow me to follow her instruction. Instead, I bravely called my older sister out of her sacred room, away from her oil painting and teenage rumination, but by then the snake, or “nake,” as I called it, had fled. Despite the amusement that usually followed my struggles with pronunciation, I told my sister about the snake in my own language, but that only made me look like an idiot or a liar. Where was it now? And I was scared, too, because unlike my mother and sister, I knew what I had seen had been no simple worm, and I vigilantly kept watch for the viper to turn up under someone’s feet. For weeks I checked my shoes before I tied them on.

I WAS CLOSER with my “worm” than I knew at the time, at least closer to Norse legends of the Midgard-Worm that girds the earth, its tail in its mouth, endlessly cycling through the yin-yang of oppositions. I think it was a long time before I saw another copperhead, with only harmless black snakes and their lost skins in between. Those freshly sloughed sheaths – glimmering on the grass, drying out on stone patios, lying decorously in flowerbeds or carried down the attic stairs of my new house over the shoulder of the home inspector – have never failed to attract and hold my attention. Some of those shed skins have been intact and very long, like giant transparent bean pods the texture of cellophane, something like a mask waiting for a dancer to peer back through its vacant eye-holes. You could pour the snake back in to fill its old skin, I think. But, of course, you cannot. No more than you can turn back time.

Last summer I found a dead black snake tangled in the plastic netting of my pond, its skin split where it tried to force itself backward to escape. Seeing inside the peeled snake filled me with guilt. The netting I had laid to protect the fish from raccoons, and tortoises from falling into the water and drowning, had caught and held the snake fast. There are obviously greater forces at work than our individual intentions, good or bad.

The backward push of the snake in its panic reminds me of a recurring nightmare I had for years, in which I had to drive a speeding car with my view restricted to the rearview mirror. I had to try to anticipate what lay ahead from what was just behind. Twists and hair-raising turns lay ahead, to which I was blind. It makes my stomach tense just to write this down. Eventually I’d wake up, wrecking the car.

“Don’t look back,” said Satchel Page.  “Something might be gaining on you.”

Indeed. And there is nothing back there that’s going to help you guess where this road goes next.

I’VE HEARD ABOUT black snakes that share living space with human households, plopping in a polite way onto cool, kitchen linoleum after everyone has gone to bed. A friend of mine who rented a renovated log cabin had an infestation of black snakes in her walls that started in her underwear drawer. It was rather a long story that made her shiver to tell, which eventually led to a thousand dollars of damage to her truck when she moved out of her cabin in the middle of the night in a thunderstorm as snakes slithered from the walls and ceiling.

According to the Gnostics, we’ve snakes to thank for wresting knowledge from the gods. But if I am to restrict the limits of my life story in snakes to first-hand accounts, I have only a few snakes left to tell about, aside from the six-foot timber rattler that buzzed across a hiking trail (no real story there); the several black snakes I’ve already mentioned that I unwrapped from summer tree limbs with my walking stick and tossed out of range to protect wren and barn swallow nests; the many black snake lodgers in the giant oak, inside its rotten trunk and among its gnarled roots, at the camp where I go each summer to teach; and certain others worth only short reports, encountered with mere glimpses, stepped over and forgotten. The sight of a black snake climbing up the wall of your house can do wonders for adrenaline, but it’s probably not going to bite you unless you tangle with it, and even then you won’t die.

WHEN I SAW a copperhead in my rental house west of Lexington, Virginia, I had no doubt about its identification, although I duly described the color and markings over the phone to my Indiana Jones-type friend in an attempt at denial.

“Yep, you’ve got yourself a full-grown copperhead,” he replied. “I can get there in an hour or so. Just leave it alone and shut off the room.”

Like I was going to stand there and poke it with a stick. I did what he suggested, but I had to reenter my bedroom to dress.

In the early 1990’s I was living in a renovated granary. I’d been outside taking a shower, the inaugural outdoor shower of the year, on an unusually warm Mother’s Day afternoon. I’d come back into the bedroom and had seen something stir in the closet. All I saw at first was motion. I’m nearsighted and had left my glasses on the dresser before padding outside. I donned them, still wearing nothing but a towel, and the snake came into focus out of the dimness. There was no door on the closet, just a rod where I’d not hung a curtain. The copperhead was coiled, head up at the ready, imitating every image of a giant cobra I’d ever seen. I guess it had sensed my approach and was poised to defend its claim on the great indoors. I was its swami, my wet head wrapped in a towel. It looked large, thicker than the lower part of my arm just above the wrist. Before I called my Indiana Jones, who lived near Charlottesville, I had called everyone I knew in town but had gotten only one answering machine after another. I figured everyone was out having dinner with their mothers, while I was caught here with a snake. On some level, I suppose it served me right. Oh, Swami.

I rattled a few drawers looking for clothes, trying all the while to keep an eye on the viper. It slowly changed position, and I went to the closet to investigate in time to see it glide behind a stack of shoeboxes. True to form, it was just trying to escape.

I was glad it proved shy, but I was disgusted, too. “Great,” I thought, “after my Indiana Jones drives an hour to rescue me, the damn snake will be gone.” The least it could do after making me feel so vulnerable was to stick around long enough to validate my story.

I closed the bedroom door to be safe, but I didn’t expect my visitor to return. The snake had no stake in my credibility. It wouldn’t be the first or last time a snake made a fool out of me. I amused myself by imagining the copperhead coiled over my flip-flops or pumps. After all, it had shown an interest in my shoes.

Sleuthing for a slithery trail, I rounded the barn that was my house and found an array of loose boards stacked against the closet’s exterior wall. Soon I located what I thought was the copperhead’s entry point, a gap in the foundation near the ground.

While I awaited my rescuer, I made a quick trip to the grocery store for steaks. I wasn’t going to drag my friend all this way over a mountain for nothing. The least I could do was throw something worthwhile on the grill.

Indiana pulled up in his truck equipped with a hoe, some bludgeoning logs and his wild animal scat book. We started our safari in the closet. He pulled out my shoeboxes and uncovered the offending hole.

“Stuff some steel wool in that,” he said.

As I gave him the inside tour of everywhere the snake had been, I strategically mentioned the steaks. Then I led him around to the side of the house, where I’d circled several times already, nosing around the lumber pile and searching for more entry points.

“Don’t move,” Indiana said. “Just back out slowly.”

I backed out and stopped about ten feet from the stacked lumber, hunched over and focused on the ground. Then I threw my glance toward the wood. Shoulder high, or where my head had bowed but a moment before, sprawled the copperhead, all three feet of it. Forget averages. My stomach lurched as I counted the number of times I’d stood exactly on or near that spot in the last hour and a half. Yes, if it had been a snake . . . . Indiana informed me that unlike other snakes copperheads give no warning before striking. They hold their ground and lunge if cornered, but generally inject less venom than other poisonous varieties that give warning gestures.

I was breathing hard when I asked, “What do you think we should do?”

Indiana didn’t hesitate. “Kill it. It knows its way inside now, and it’ll keep hanging around.”

I must have looked distressed or afraid.

“They mate, you know. Why don’t you start the charcoal,” he added with sympathy.

I did as I was told and never asked where he pitched the dead snake. He did say it was as tough as old shoe leather and hard to kill. I told everyone about his chivalry and derring-do. I kept thinking about Bruce Dern, though, in the film “Tattoo,” with his skin so completely obscured by patterns and designs that he ended up evoking a reptile. But my Indiana was just a regular, transplanted Yankee, with a penchant for trail wear, leather bomber jackets and nature writing.

UNFORTUNATELY, INDIANA WASN’T the only gentleman I had to recruit to kill a copperhead while I was living in that barn. Instead of being a genuine nature lover, the next one was enrolled at the university’s law school. I think I would have fared better with a medical student, who would at least have had an affinity for the caduceus. This law student had nothing more in mind than a few lazy weeks of R&R house-sitting at the Big Farm House, not engaging in jungle warfare at the converted barn below. Law students and lawyers, in my experience, are generally tired or nervous most of the time. All of that left-brainiac stuff of building arguments out of human nature makes them fall into a light coma the minute they sit down.

On a Sunday evening in hot July, I was sitting on the stairs that led down to my kitchen, sweating, with my portable phone pressed to my ear, chatting away long distance when I happened to gaze toward the stove. At first I wasn’t sure what had caught my attention, but a few seconds later I saw a vibrating tongue and then a head emerge at floor level. No mistaking the slit eyes, the anvil head.

“Copperhead!” I announced, into the phone.

“What?”

“There’s a copperhead under my stove.”

“You’re shitting me,” my city friend said.

“No, I gotta go,” I said.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Damn, it just disappeared.”

During the previous long winter months, I’d caught all manner of rodents – brown field mice with white feet, grey, smaller-eared house mice, and chubby, stubby-tailed, squint-eyed voles. I started by catching them in Havahart traps. Catch and release. But that sentiment didn’t last through November.

After clearing out all the items from the cabinet beside the stove, I lined it with various death-dealing devices. Over glue traps or poison, I favored the old-fashioned snap traps that worked as swiftly as the gallows. I’d caught such a succession of mice and variations of mice under the kitchen counter that I’d pasted a picture of Mickey Mouse inside one of the doors, circled and canceled through with black marker. I had been practicing with small things, it’s true, but I still wasn’t ready to kill a snake.

I eased open the door to my “The Cabinet of Doom” and peered inside, but I did not find the snake. The way the cabinet ran the length of the kitchen and the kitchen connected to the bathroom just beyond, the snake could have been anywhere. I know this must be hard to picture, but remodeling a granary into living space necessarily leaves some gaps of convenience, some loopholes through which civilization and the wild can still slip in an exchange of sorts, back and forth. I would have preferred a pest-free living space, but the granary had its share of charms. I moved in with a sense of adventure. My cat had the same idea and vanished through a hole behind the water heater on our first afternoon in the place. When I stopped panicking and calling everyone I knew, I saw her, the consummate tuxedoed house cat, strutting down the driveway from the big house. I promptly called my landlady, who plugged the hole. Life had been proceeding in this fashion ever since, presenting hole after hole to be patched. I’d even seen it snow right through the wall.

I remembered something my Indiana had said after he killed the Mother’s Day Special. “They follow the plumbing when they’re thirsty.” I did say it was a very hot July.

I gathered up my cat, remembering the “copperheads don’t climb” lore, and situated her with her litter box in the loft where I also planned to retreat. It was almost dusk, and I didn’t know what else to do. I waited, turning pages of a book. Just before ten, I heard a car crunching up the gravel drive and ran out to flag it down. It was the law student house sitter, heading up to the main house after downing a few at a local watering hole. I told him about the snake and didn’t stop chattering until he offered to come in and look around. Did I say he was reluctant?

“It could be anywhere by now,” the law student said hopefully. “Probably went back outside.” He suppressed a yawn.

But it hadn’t. We soon found it pressed up against the back door of the tub and laundry room. At first, I was in favor of just opening the door, but I remembered what Indiana had advised about the other one. This was probably its mate, but perhaps not. There was no way to be sure.

“What do you want to do?” the law student asked, backing away.

I didn’t blame him; my knees were water and my stomach felt like I’d just eaten a bushel of grass. “Death Valley Days” flashed through my mind, episodes that inevitably featured a bandanna tourniquet at some crucial point in the narrative, a knife slicing thigh or arm flesh and our hero sucking and spitting out rattlesnake venom to save a bad man’s life. Forget about anti-venom.

This was my home.

“Kill it,” I said.

“But how?” the law student asked, now with more interest in the project.

“With a hoe or something?” I hadn’t actually witnessed the other snake’s execution, so I was guessing here. Didn’t Farmer McGregor always swing a hoe after the rabbits?

“I’ve never killed anything before,” my reluctant hero said, and then qualified his statement. “Deliberately, I mean.”

“Me, neither,” I echoed. I guess I had already discounted the mice. I was the butcher of mice among women, yet I didn’t stop to count them. I was already gone, I suppose.

If it had been anything else, I would have stepped in at this point and volunteered, cheerfully relegating the law student to moral support. As a child I was read to incessantly from two books, The Little Engine That Could and The Little Red Hen. From these wise sources I’ve gleaned my personal philosophy of “I think I can do it myself.” And most of the time, it works well enough. I can use a wrench, a drill and two kinds of screw drivers, truss a turkey, make a decent cherry pie from scratch, replace the inner workings of a toilet, shop for a car without male support, and I once drove a stick shift on little notice as my high school date puked Boone’s Farm Burgundy out the window, but I was not doing this.

Where was my nature writer-Indiana Jones or the Hell’s Angel-turned-zoologist I later met, who had a dragon tattooed in his palm? The zoologist studied snake vocalizations by dissecting their throats. True. He was allergic to anti-venom and King Cobras were his research subjects, but I’m positive he’d have had no qualms about killing this snake. For that matter, where was my Lady of the Lands, who had so skillfully, if unmercifully, used a cool poker to clobber a rat that had refused to die in one of my attic traps?

Gentle reader, she was in France. I would have to make of this law student the one I required.

“I’m sure you can handle it,” I said, as if dropping a file onto his desk at 5 p.m., offering him a preview of corporate law practice.

“I’ll go get something,” he replied.

I didn’t expect him to return. I doubt I would have. Someone had whispered to me earlier that summer that she thought the law student was gay, as though I cared. Now, I desperately wanted him to go against whatever remained of that tired typecasting. To his credit, he came back down to the granary toting a hoe, an ax and an orange snow shovel. They turned out to be good choices.

“I think you’d better do it fast,” I said.

He did it slowly, and the snake bunched up like a bulging biceps every time he tried to saw it with the dull ax blade. Eventually he managed to divide the copperhead into two stubborn halves while I held down its head with the hoe.

He carried it out the door in the shovel, one half after the other, apologizing for the iridescent mess of scales and pungent blood saturating the indoor-outdoor carpeting.

I just thanked him profusely, and after he’d gone, repeatedly scrubbed at the metallic blood. I swept up scores of glittering scales that adhered to my hands. It seemed I could not erase the stain with detergent and water, or even Boraxo powdered hand soap. Only time would wear the shimmer from my skin, and it never entirely left the blue carpet.

I KNOW MY snake story, like the World Serpent’s endless circling, has no end, that my encounters will continue until I receive the message, but what’s with these snakes? To live in harmony seems unlikely after so much blood and fear, avoidance and confrontation. If snakes are following me, I have to wonder why.

Today, I take a break from writing and walk outside to see how Ron’s doing with the rockwork on the pond below the waterfall. I want it all finished before the open house. Although he’s a large man, a professional greens-man for the movies and as practiced as a Druid with rock moving, I’m a little worried he’s handling too much alone. Virginia bluestone is much heavier than it looks; it’s very dense stone. I remember that each of the eighty Stonehenge bluestones weighs up to four tons and probably had to travel 240 miles from Preseli Hills in Wales. It’s enough to make you believe in aliens.

I’m trying to forget about snakes, about words and mysteries, when Ron says, “I’m sorry, but I killed a little snake in the pond. I didn’t mean to, but I flicked it when I saw it. Reflex.” Ron tells me it was a Queen Snake. Not poisonous at all. He pulls back a fold of rubber pond liner, and I see it, bright green and still writhing. Ron tucks back the liner. “I’ll get it later,” he says.

SNAKE MEDICINE IS potent, linking us back through every culture to the first shamans, snake charmers and holy women, alternately despised and worshipped. Perhaps I need to take a dream-time break and retreat, as the ancient Greeks did to their dream temples decorated with undulating snakes, guardians of sleep and healing. Maybe I need to consult an oracle.

My spoken language is tightly tied to the snake by my first encounter in the foyer of my childhood, when to speak its name through the shame of my imperfect speech meant the difference between complete and faulty communication, perhaps life and death. I didn’t yet trust that speaking the truth requires passion, not perfection. There are still a lot of things left to learn and certain mysteries to ponder: like why speaking the truth can so often lead to ridicule or silencing, even when the words are all pronounced correctly.

IN THE COUNTRY house I bought after living in the granary, I found another baby copperhead in my foyer late one spring. I almost stepped on it, and surprisingly, my ailing, elderly cat just avoided it, if she sensed or saw it at all. Even my dog let it alone, neither cat nor dog alerting me to the intruder. Again, it was a woodpile that attracted the invader: split logs stacked conveniently next to the door. Sometimes I learn things only after constant repetition. Would I ever, finally learn? I have let snakes go, aided in their deaths, and now I have killed them myself, but in every case they return, loop back, with another variation, another chance for me to gain some ground, some wisdom. Maybe this story has no resolution. I know it has no simple moral. Maybe my hair’s made of hissing snakes, and I’m the only one who can’t see it. Don’t look.

I swept that copperhead out the door, and gave it a good long toss off the shovel over the fence. This time, at least, I cast out the snake with a shovel, not my hand. Incremental progress, but progress nonetheless. The next few hours I spent in long sleeves, poking through the woodpile and gingerly removing each log until the steel frame cord holder was empty. I dragged the frame far from the house before restacking the logs. Then I ordered a new sliding door. There was a gap in the old one. I could have filled it with caulk, but I was into renovations in a big way back then, trying to achieve something that was all mine by rebuilding my little house one piece at a time. I had started with new hardwood floors before moving in and gone from there, replacing the faulty stove pipe that had a disintegrated liner, then the woodstove itself, graduating from a smoky appliance to one with a catalytic converter to save the environment. I replaced the kitchen appliances with ENERGY STAR brands, added a heat pump and a back-up furnace. Forty-year architectural shingles covered the roof, and the overhead light fixtures were all upgraded with ceiling fan kits. I added a carport and finally a screened porch, new stairs and decking, a waterfall and pond. Soon I would be gone.

The man who had installed the new sliding door told me that it was far superior to the old lopsided door that had never opened smoothly in the first place. “Botched installation,” he said, pointing out the rough and bent ridges of the original sliders. I had periodically re-greased them, but it never really helped.

The improved door was all metal, and too heavy and snug to be lifted off its track by burglars, he said. The way he said it kind of gave me the creeps. Something about my country house on fifty acres of trees always brought forth the approval of men, and their obvious envy made me nervous. Some of the men had wanted to move in with me after a few dates, and more than a few I’d hired to fix things over the last fourteen years had tried to sabotage something, maybe in hopes of returning.

“What about snakes?” I asked him.

“Snakes?” He reared up from the lock he was tamping and peered at me as if he’d seen Medusa.

His tense shoulders said it all, all that I imagined he thought about me: that if I was scared of snakes, maybe I and my copious bookcases belonged in a townhouse, not way out here in the sticks with wild turkeys and deer, owls, raccoons, three kinds of woodpeckers and the occasional fox, rare bobwhite and black bear. He didn’t know I’d seen a mountain lion perched on an outcrop like a watchful old spirit guide one bitter winter night. And in the rocks and woodpiles: snakes, an assortment of mostly invisible beauties. Timber rattlers; copperheads; the hog-nose rooting for toads; smooth black snakes keeping the perimeters clear; water moccasins down at the creek, swimming with their mouths unhinged, skimming the surface, each snake far more than a word to me. But how could this stranger know?

SOMETIMES ON SUMMER mornings mist wrapped my mountain, or, in winter, its rough, jagged shape caught the light stark against a cloudless sky. Spring trees dressed its angles with clumps of impossible green. Soon the color would molt again, transform, shedding red and orange down its slopes to tumble across the valley toward my porch and into my eye.

“Never mind,” I said to the door installer. “It was just a lame joke.”

“You had me going there with your snakes. I’d rather kill them than look at them, myself.”
So, he was scared of snakes. That’s all. His face relaxed, and he bent back to his task, to test the new lock against the strike plate for the perfect fit.

It would be years before I was ready to sell that house, trade that solitude, that close range view of a mountainside and all of the creatures that came along with it. Neither of us knew what was coming next. The door was so heavy, he reassured me, that I wouldn’t need a sawed-off broomstick wedged in it for extra protection any more. No one could lift it off its sturdy new tracks, and nothing dangerous or beautiful could ripple through a gap.

Discussion

One Response to My Life in Snakes

  1. Diann Blakely says:

    I may not sleep for weeks again after reading this! I am so frightened of snakes I once had to be physically carried out of a field at Bread Loaf after stepping on some harmless reptile! But Sewanee is on a “copperhead trail” and the place swarms with them. People refer to outbreaks of children getting “stung” by the vipers because the antivenin is so much more dangerous than the poison itself.

    That being said, what a beautifully written, lyrical, and … provocative (?) essay!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *