FICTION

EVERYONE HAS A SNAKE STORY

BY SEAN ADEN LOVELACE

One time a snake fell into my canoe. Right out of a bush. This was on the Spring River, in central Arkansas. I believe the snake was an Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula), or possibly a Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata), though I’m no professional herpetologist. Well, my fellow canoeist—also my little cousin—leapt right overboard. Talk about impulsive! Reflexively, I grabbed my paddle and struck the snake with a delirious vengeance, severing its head. My mother and father and aunt and uncle paddled up and asked why my cousin was in the water. I lifted the headless snake. My mother screamed. My uncle gasped. Overhead, crows crowed.

Later, over a tray of cold spaghetti, I found myself the topic of conversation. A young man told me, “Speak louder.” After taking the pressure of my blood, a nurse passed me an appointment card, a vividly beige pill, and this sage advice: “It’s good to talk about things.” My father said, “He doesn’t panic.” Mother shook her head and made a click-cluck sound with her tongue. I replied, “I just reacted.” Followed by, “Anyone have a napkin?”

*

Let’s get the facts straight: A snake has scaly skin, no limbs, no external ears, no eyelids, no warm blood, and swallows its prey whole. Inoffensive and shy, snakes have evolved no behavior to prey upon humans. In fact, they avoid humans. However, humans never “get to know” snakes. Instead they form irrational assumptions based on appearance and hearsay. Consequently, humans “just react,” typically attacking snakes with a delirious vengeance. The Spring River averages a temperature of 49 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s clearly too cold. Isn’t it?

*

Here’s a story for you. According to mythology, the Greek island of Tinos was once called “Ofioussa” because of the snakes that lived there (Ofis: snake). Poseidon, the island’s benevolent protector-god, sent a swarm of crows to send away the snakes. As a result, in the good old olden days, a great temple dedicated to Poseidon stood on the island. Eventually, the temple returned to the earth. Returned to earth, I say.

*

Do you want to know the second most troubling thing? Eventually, my Spring River story grew like an anaconda—the world’s largest snake, with the longest specimen on record at 37 feet, 3 inches—and is still today told and retold at family holidays, reunions, mall outings, picnics, and/or hospital waiting rooms.

*

Let’s look at it this way: People are senselessly frightened of sharks, often thinking of them while treading ocean water. Professional sports teams use sharks as intimidating mascots (The San Jose Sharks, for example). The movie Jaws grossed 471 million dollars worldwide and generally scared the hell out of people. Sharks have gills, humans do not. Lungs! Lungs! Waterlogged lungs! As we enter the water, we enter the shark’s world. The shark’s house. The shark’s bathroom. How would you react if a shark strolled into your bathroom? You would bite the shark, literally or metaphorically. Incidentally, last year sharks in the United States bit nine humans. Incidentally, last year humans in New York City bit 1,517 humans.

Replace the word shark with the word snake.

*

Try to follow this: One day at the dinner table—when I was still allowed at the dinner table—I asked my father, a professional herpetologist: “Is it true snakes can only strike the length of their body?” Silence. Silence layered on silence, like fermenting flotsam. “No,” my father said carefully, glancing at my mother. “That’s a myth. Like that holding your mouth right will make the fish strike. Or that lightning never strikes twice.” “Thank you for the compliment,” my mother added, spooning up another spoonful of fig pie. “No one has referred to me as striking for years.” My father frowned, and turned to me. “It strikes me as strange you’d ask. Why do you?” I didn’t answer, and my brother hopped up from the table. “Time for the Diamondbacks game! Ol’ strike-em-out Johnson is pitching.” “Baseball?” father said, striking a match to light his post-pie pipe. “Aren’t they on strike?” My brother scowled. “That was years ago, dad.”

“Johnson, Johnson,” my mother mumbled to the linoleum. “Didn’t he strike a reporter?” No one replied, and she turned to my sister. “Ah! You’ve not eaten your figs. What is this, a hunger strike?” Lost in her headphones, my sister didn’t answer (or even hear the question). My father jumped from his chair. “Golly, it’s league night at Gold Strike. I nearly forgot. Wish me luck.” “Strikes and spares,” I whispered. Sister followed father from the room. I sat and looked to mother. She tilted away, collected our paper plates, stepped outside, and hurled them off the balcony.

*

Medical symbols—two snakes wrapped around a staff, for instance—give hope, say on the side of an ambulance, but they are not in themselves medicine. It’s all about timing. Asclepius (the son of Apollo and Coronis) discovered medicine by watching one snake use herbs to bring another snake back to life. Back to life. Asclepius learned the trick (back-bringing life), once healing an enemy of Zeus. In response, Zeus thunderstruck Asclepius with a vengeance sufficiently delirious enough to place him among the constellations, as Ophinchus, the serpent-bearer. Gives one a hankering for a quality telescope, does it not?

*

One evening my younger brother came ambling and twirling into the room. I wasn’t happy to see him because I owed him 14 dollars and an apple pie for a story he promised to tell me, yet had shed all my funds for the month. To summarize my brother: He was wearing a torn black T-shirt with the word JENIUS on the front in six inch white letters. “What are you doing?” he asked me. “Typing.” “Well, I just shot dad.” “Really?” “Yes. We walked the railroad tracks down to the bottom to shoot migrating blackbirds with our shotguns and on the way back we were tired and hungry and somewhat hypnotized by the monotony of the railroad ties and we strolled right up on a Black-masked Racer sunning itself on the hot metal of the track.” “What did you do?” “I just reacted.” “And?” “And I blew it away it with a delirious vengeance and some of the shot from the shell—three to be exact—ricocheted around the metal track and I heard dad go ‘Umph’ and I had shot him.” “And?” “And he bent over then straightened up and picked out two of the shot from the skin of his belly but one of the shot was deep inside so he just left it.” “Will he live?” “Yes, he will live (implying Yes, he will live, implying . . .). In fact, he shrugged and said, ‘At least I got my iron today.’” “Shot is made of lead.” “Obviously, but you don’t comeuppance somebody you just shot.” Ambling and twirling, my brother made his exit.

*

insert your very own snake story here

*

Did you notice my brother wasn’t at the Spring River with my entire family? And what of my sister? It was the climacteric of my life and they were in Colorado, at the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown. They were probably stoned. Since adolescence, when the family “gets together,” they attend music festivals. So they don’t really know about that day.

Look, I was out of control coming off the rapids. As the captain of our little ship, and as an older responsible relative, I was negligent. I rammed the bush and knocked my cousin out of the canoe, and the snake in. And the snake was dead and decapitated when it landed. It had most likely been left in the bush by a predator, or a scavenger, perhaps a bird. I specifically recall crowing.

*

No doubt references abound—of adder & fowl, fowl & adder: And I quote from the New International Variation: “For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”
Amen.

*

Gripping two dried gourds, my sister entered the “living” room. She had on a Sony Walkman, a coiling headphone wire, a tiny pair of sunglasses, and a see-through two-piece candy green cotton bathing suit. “Valleys are the metaphor,” she said, shaking the gourds like two oversized rattles. “Once, in a river valley, during a severe weather event, a pregnant rat snake attacked a pack of muskrats. While riding down a large muskrat, she was struck dead by lightning. One baby snake squirted out, and fell into the pack of muskrats. ‘Squeak, squeak,’ the muskrats said. ‘Squeak, squeak,’ the snake said and joined the muskrats in chewing delectable lily pad bulbs. The snake lived with the muskrats. Seasons later a rat snake attacked the muskrats, saw the young snake and rode it down. ‘You’re a snake,’ the snake hissed. ‘You don’t eat lily pad bulbs.’ ‘I do,’ the young snake squeaked. Exasperated, the snake caught a muskrat and stuffed it into the young snake’s fangs. The young snake gagged, then paused as his mouth filled with muskrat flavor. He did like the taste.” My sister shimmied to her hidden music. “And then what happened?” I yelled. “Huh?” she said and returned upstairs, to the sunning booth.

*

Sometimes, when I can’t quit hearing this gurgling sound in my ears and my bladder won’t empty, I don’t sleep. This usually lasts 48 hours. Then I swoon, falling into a dream hole. Friends, family, clergymen, counselors, cashiers—everyone I know or have ever known—are standing around a narrow, winding table, its surface shimmering blue. They stare at me, expectant. Eyes gleaming, they chant: “seven, seven, seven.” They cross fingers and hold breaths and whisper gods. I hold two dice. I toss them. Silence, then a groan. Venomous vibes, constricting glares. On one die is the number one. On one die is the number one. Snake eyes.

*

Talk about a tale. One evening at the dinner table my father finished grace and just as he was about to fork the leg of a light yet succulent Cornish hen I added this verbal addendum to his amen: “And I, like a second-comer, waiting.” The family paused and my father said, “You stole that line from D.H. Lawrence, and I hardly see thievery as a sign of progress. In fact,”—his voice hardened—“you-need-to-see-a-shrink!” I replied, “I don’t want to be shrunk.” At this my mother cried, crossed herself, and told me I was a murderous, blasphemous pagan. She said exactly, “As a pagan, you shall now eat in your room, a room of your own, away from this house, driven from this table and home as St. Patrick drove and drummed the snakes from Ireland and into the sea.” I pointed out that—if this tale were to be “true”—the Sierra Club would definitely frown on Maewyn Succat’s (Patrick’s actual name) complete disregard of the fragile symbiosis of predator/prey, and that fossil records clearly indicate Ireland never had snakes. Not even a green one. Mother huffed and salted, peppered and huffed. I slithered upstairs to pack my bags.

*

When people see a snake—or something resembling a snake, a loop of tubing, a curl of tire, a discarded noose—especially if they happen upon it suddenly, they get this feeling. Like when you’re home alone at night and sitting on the toilet with a loaded revolver and something falls off the bookshelf in the next room. A jolt, only exponentially so.

*

The first most troubling thing is this: There never was a snake. It was horseplay, trying to splash each other. It was giggles and a big smile. The paddles splashing, not steering. We came around the corner crazily, crazily, crazily, and rammed the bush. My cousin tumbled away, beneath the roots. The Spring River has a devious current, a serpentine undertow. My mother and father and aunt and uncle paddled up and asked where, not why. 49 degrees. Beneath the roots. My mother screamed. My uncle gasped. I dived and swam and surfaced. Swam-and-surfaced. Surfaced. Downstream, flailing. Overhead, crows crowed. I remember them filling the sky, coating the sky, gumming the sky, like snake oil.

1 comment to EVERYONE HAS A SNAKE STORY

  • Ruth

    What’s impressive about this piece is that for a while it reads like nonfiction, little ditty, everyone with their snake story. And then goes crazy in the best way.