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Three Things About Snakes

February 7, 2010

1. The summer I was seven, a garter snake slunk through town, moving under cover, garden to garden till it ran out of plants and had to take a chance crossing the Rintools’ lawn. From there, it was easy passage to the tall weeds not yet tilled under to make way for new homes. I forget which kid saw the snake first, but probably it was Dwayne. He was oldest, he was bravest, and he swore he’d pick the snake up next time he spotted it, so we could all take a turn holding it. I imagined I was tough enough to reach down and snatch a reptile out of the grass, and planned my technique. I would have to be quick, would have no time to think, flinch, or pause. From nature documentaries I knew you had to keep one thumb on the back of its head, the same grip and gesture as flipping open the lid on my dad’s tin beer stein or the syrup dispenser at the place we sometimes ate waffles. I considered the snake’s texture, how resilient its body might be. Gauged how much pressure to apply by practicing the head-pinch on my own thumb. Too firm and the snake might be hurt (it was only a weensie green garter after all), too loose and it would flip its tail in a tricky fashion and wriggle away. I never did meet the snake, never had a chance to examine its stripes. I imagined its tongue would slice fingers like grass cuts, either that or it would feel like a soft trickle from a slow-running tap.

2. The weird kid down the block kept mice, spiders, and a coiled brown snake in three identical glass boxes. The menagerie was strictly confined to the basement, where his mother never had to see it and could pretend it didn’t exist. He fed his pets the same thing, which I was pretty sure meant none were enjoying a balanced diet. What did I know? he challenged. I was a girl, and owned a fancy white dog. There were rules about visiting: hands kept at your sides, no reaching to touch; be very quiet because the mice, especially, were easily scared; and, no feeding them people-food. In fact, wash your hands first because they could smell snacks and ice cream a mile away (his mom let us eat mint-chip by the gallon), and might try to get out and nip at your palm. This stuff was too strange to make up, and I figured since he spent his entire summer holed up with his creatures, if anyone knew what made the snake uneasy or the mice run in fast circles, it was him. The basement was divided in two, aquariums on one side and a dart board on the other. When he’d had enough of staring at his pets, he’d announce it was time for target practice, and we’d spend the rest of the afternoon chucking darts at the ceiling as hard as we could, burying the tips in the wood while the green-black-and-red board stayed as new as the day his dad took it out of the box.

3. Last summer stayed cool and when it wasn’t actually raining, the sky was overcast, storing up water between storms. The lake was too cold for a comfortable swim, but we were stubborn and refused to head back to the city without at least a quick plunge. Back on shore, I watched the tougher others splash and linger, while I quivered in my bikini like a chilly kid who’d been in the pool too long. The beach was rocky more than sandy, and I basked like a lizard on hot stones until the sun dipped out of sight. My toes looked bluish beneath my August tan, and as soon as I was dry enough for pants, I yanked my jeans back on. I picked up my hoodie and shook it, flicking off crispy lake weeds and a tiny black snake, which dropped into my lap, unfurling like a fiddlehead then zipping between two flat stones.

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(inspired by a friend who has promised to tell me stories about encounters with spiders, snakes, and such…hopefully they come off a little more butch than mine!)

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