I was sorting family photos one day when I saw a slight motion in the tree outside my window. The tree isn’t more than a belligerent sapling, a teenage oak that leans against the windowpane like a wooded version of James Dean. One slender branch had uncurled from itself and pressed its pointed green face against the glass. It blinked. Most people would say, “Hey, there’s a harmless green snake in the window,” or at least bang on the window with a broom to scare it away. But most people never saw my earlier giant-wolf-spider-landing-on-my-head hallway dance that made the cat piddle in his tracks. When I saw the snake, I wanted to scream, but no one else was at home to hear me. So I called my husband at work.
“Aaaaaiiiggggghhhh! Snake! Snake!” I yelled into the phone, getting immediately to the point. I heard some badly hidden snickering on the other end of the line before my husband began firing questions at me like a jaded crisis hotline counselor.“What color is the snake? Where is it? How long is it?” After determining that the snake was not, in fact, wrapped around my neck, and not actually ten feet long but perhaps two feet long and a leafy green, he gave his verdict. “It’s a blue racer,” he said.“But it’s green,” I insisted. “It’s still a blue racer,” he coughed before he hung up, but it could have also been a choked giggle.
After seeing me jump up and down, the snake edged closer to the glass, bobbing in a highly civilized attempt to communicate. Or maybe he was just laughing too, it was hard to tell.
His forefathers have been chuckling at mine for a long time. Snakes, both harmless and dangerous, are common in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri. From one generation to another, we pass along superstitions and stories about these creatures. As a fourth-generation Ozark native, I am heir to this slithery paranoia, starting with my great-grandmother who swore up and down (and usually from a high branch in a tree) that she saw hoop snakes rolling like runaway wagon wheels down the hill, or snakes that would come apart when hit with a rock, then put themselves back together. These stories petrified me as a child, because snakes on the ground were one matter, but snakes that have discovered the wheel and glue were another situation entirely.
My mother, on the other hand, believed that the key to a good defense was a great offense. Although she would scream when she saw a snake, she would also grab a hoe and never give it a chance to laugh at her. One foolish king snake dared cross her path and lost its head, followed by an inch of its once five-foot long body for every post-mortem twitch. Every few minutes she would look out the window, and if the parts moved, she would take the hoe and whack the snake again. The snake was in one-inch, sushi-size lengths when my dad finally came home; he also had an annoying habit of badly hidden snickering.
After a while, the little snake in the window seemed to shrink from python proportions to his original size, and didn’t seem quite as vicious as I imagined. I looked down at the photos scattered around my chair; picking up a picture of my great-grandma, I decided that maybe it was time for a truce. After making sure the window was tightly closed, I watched the blue-green racer slowly retreat back into the leaves. It’s hard to let go of old fears, but I’m willing to give it a try. Perhaps I can learn to live in peace with snakes; they’ve been here longer than me. But the first snake I see rolling down a hill, I’m grabbing a hoe.
*A modified version of this essay appeared in the July 2005 issue of Country Extra.