We lived in a drafty old farmhouse that was prone to acquiring rodents and reptiles alike. I’ll never forget racing into the bathroom in second grade, jumping over a rope stretched out in the middle of the floor on my way to the toilet, only to realize, once I was seated, that the “rope” was slowly moving. It had not registered the seismic event of my leaping over it, or if it had it was either too cold (this was early spring) or too busy figuring out its strange environment to care. I imagine it lying there thinking “what the hell? Where’s the grass?”
Later, I tried to write the experience down for a ‘what I did on my summer vacation’ essay when school started back. I got a good grade and a ‘my but you’re creative’ smile, but I could tell the teacher didn’t really believe it had happened. Even in that rural area, people were used to houses with foundations (ours had none), where such a casual visitor would have been unlikely at best. I had tried to explain the experience by saying I had initially mistaken the snake for a toy, but in fact, I had to pee so badly that it had barely registered. I mainly thought “Huh, rope” as I leaped over it on the way to my destination. I only realized what it was on slow reflection.
Another year, Mom took my brownie troop to Cincinnati’s Natural History museum. We were there for the fossils, the awesome fake cave (to which I returned again and again while my grown-ups looked for me with increasing panic) and the planetarium, which was then located inside the museum. (This was before the museum moved to Union Terminal). What I remember most vividly about that visit was the snake. Once she’d captured me exiting the caves, Mom took us all over to see a naturalist with a boa constrictor.
I don’t know if this thing was a pet or a zoo animal or what, but it was huge. The other girls and chaperones stood very far away. I walked over with Mom and stroked it. He let it rest on my shoulders, even, so I could feel its weight. I’ll never forget those scales that were smoother than skin. When I take my own kids to see snake exhibits like this, the rules clearly prohibit touching, let alone holding, by the audience, so I must assume that either such commonsense ideas had not yet been put in place or, as so often happens to me, I was just violating them without knowing it. It was beautiful.
Perhaps another reason we never had pet snakes was that, aside from my bathroom encounter with the garter snake that one time, our property had a hearty black snake population all its own. I feel for the Iowa people who lived in the snake house. But that house reminds me less of the place I grew up and more of a friend’s experience. My friend Rachel had to have someone from wildlife control remove a python from her ducts when she moved into a new home some years ago. I forget whether the previous owner simply lost his snake or whether he actually abandoned, it, but Rachel was not happy to meet it face to face, and I don’t think she appreciated my “oh wow” response to her experience.
We never had that problem. Our snakes never overtook the house or required outside intervention. But then, maybe black snakes are more territorial or something, because we only ever seemed aware of one indoors at a time. We periodically found snake skins in the attic, and those seemed to grow with every new find, to the point that by the time we met their owner face to face, we were already aware of his size.
One day, while Dad and I were watching TV, Dad looked out the transom above the living room door and saw this head looking in on us. I don’t suppose transom is really the right word, because it didn’t ever open. It was just three little windows above a heavy wood door, and there was actually a sort of window seat up there on the outside. This was where the snake had arrived. God only knows how he got up there. Actually, we rather think he got down there, rather than up there, and that he had slithered down from a tree to the roof, then crawled through the space in between the porch roof and the house. Possibly. Or maybe he just appeared himself there. If Harry Potter had been written, we would have started howling “Voldemort” and “appirated”. In any case, he was at least four feet long and thoroughly pissed off when Dad used a long forked stick to get him out of the transom area and down onto the porch. We named him Big Brother and attributed our nonexistent mouse population to him for some years after.
As recently as a few years ago, we were walking around Mom’s yard and a baby black snake dropped out of a tree very nearly on Scott’s head. At least we think it was a black snake. Scott was walking behind Mom and I, and the snake suddenly flew past his face and plopped at his feet, where it lay curled for some time before heading off. It was maybe a foot long, though this was hard to be sure of, since Scott had only gotten that one glance at it as it plummeted by, and it landed in a grumpy coil right at his feet. Its body was gray with brown, or maybe black spots on its back. We were visiting from Kentucky, and we had recently seen baby copperheads that looked a little too much like this fellow for our comfort. He looked nothing like a garter snake, and it was really only our certainty that the black snake population on Mom’s property was high that supported our conviction that this was, in fact, a black snake, not its more venomous cousin. Even Mom didn’t try to argue he couldn’t possibly be poisonous. We just walked away and gave him a wide berth. And really, when dealing with snakes, that is always the wise course of action.