Saturday, November 22, 2008

HERPETOLOGY

Yesterday’s blog about Scout Janet watching a snake swim around in swamp waters where Mary Himel of New Iberia stood, waiting to be filmed as a Cajun woman being immersed at a night-time baptism, reminded me that Janet actually has a long-standing fear of snakes. She records that fear of reptiles in THE ROAD HOME, a book of essays about her Alabama childhood, published by Border Press and now out of print. In a chapter entitled “Not for Herpetologists,” Janet writes:

“When I was six, I lived near my Aunt Bea and her family, which included my Grandpa. They had pets at their house that would wander down to our house. Pa Faulk had a bird dog who would catch biscuits the size of coffee saucers in his mouth when Daddy tossed them out the kitchen door to him. My cousin Jane had a small brown and white Beagle named Sport. One time, Sport went missing for days, and I remember Pa Faulk looking for him, finally finding him under the house, dead, where he had crawled after being bitten by a snake.

We lived out in the country on Highway 10 close to the woods and near what Daddy called a bottom, which must have been the reason for all the talk about snakes. There was the snake that bit Sport, and seems like there was always conversation about King snakes and how you shouldn’t kill them because they were good snakes. There were stories about green snakes and my maternal grandfather who had a reputation for being a practical joker. One of his favorite pastimes was to put a thin, wriggling, green snake under his straw hat, then go down to the country store and complain to some unsuspecting customer that something about his hat was causing him to itch. Of course, when this Good Samaritan offered assistance and lifted the hat, he was startled, to say the least.

There was the brown-colored snake that hung, wrapped like a horsehair rope, around an exposed beam in a vacant back room of another aunt’s house. As my cousin Jane and I played, rambling through the unused rooms of the big country house, our eyes came to rest on this rope imposter. When it began to unwind, the two of us went running and screaming through the house, out into the yard, leaving the front screen door flapping behind us, while my aunt stood looking bewildered, wet dish towel in hand.

Then, there was the gargantuan snake that Jane’s sister’s boyfriend killed in the piney woods behind the house just after it had swallowed a whole rabbit. If you don’t know much about snakes, you need to know that we could tell it swallowed the entire rabbit because of the big hump about halfway down his otherwise slinky, six-foot long body.

The last snake of my childhood was the one that had been chopped into two pieces and left near the driveway. Jane and I had great reservations about walking past it to meet the school bus, but we did, swearing to everyone on the bus that the head came alive and chased us all the way to the bus stop.

No wonder there’re so many strange stories about snakes; those reptiles have a real knack for catching you by surprise, including the one that caused all that domestic trouble between the nice young couple, Eve and Adam. In her third marriage, my mother returned to the country after living in town for many years. She’s a gregarious woman, and the solitude was maddening. She has been afraid of snakes since the days her father teased people with his green snakes. When she worked in the fields near him, she’d hold back yelps of fear to keep him from knowing that she had come across one, afraid he would tease her about it. Now, in the early evenings at dusk, she actually seeks out a snake. She has seen it in the backyard “pretending to be a stick,” and she has seen it slither up the white oak tree nearby. She believes it’s a King snake, a friend, and has made failed attempts to photograph it. She thinks about it throughout the day and looks for it at twilight. Could Eve have been so lonely?”
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