Thursday, November 13, 2008

Snake in the grass

“Want to see a snake?” 

As the informal and unofficial chronicler of our lives together, a job which involves varying skills of censor, comedian, sage, psychologist, tinkerer, revisionist and historian, I am prone at times to making lavish announcements concerning era-inducing events. Being a journalist and occasional headline-writer only aggravates this tendency. With that in mind, let it be known to all and sundry alike that such an event transpired on Tuesday, July 8, 2008, when Lori entered the house and calmly posed the preceding question with none of the usual hysterical hue and cry, call to arms, half-veiled insinuations or glaring death-threat looks. If not for a slight higher tone to her voice, she could have been discussing a singularly-beautiful red-blushed cloud, a first purplish blossom on the echinacea or, as happened later in the day, an impromptu and mysterious hoedown on our porch by six young cottontails. 

So collected was she, in fact, that I almost misunderstood her. But snake is a word immediately impressed upon our consciousness: at first sensuous and sibilant, a slow hiss jarringly truncated by a harsh stop with only a short vowel bridging the gap.

At the time I was sitting on the floor in our back room, a sheaf of important papers in my lap and our black Angora rabbit, Sheba, beside me. I’d made a mistake on an important survey and was trying to locate it among dozens of forms and didn’t want to be bothered, but as any veterate married man will attest, a wife’s speech consists of delivery and content and the twain are both isolate and inseparable. “I’m coming!” I said.

For at heart her question was not a question but a command and a plea. Identify it. Make it go away. As a man, I find this touching and, dare I say, affirming. My grandmother, a farmer’s wife on the brutal plains of West Texas, would without fanfare or prompting snatch a hoe and vivisect any serpent audacious enough to slither onto the property, with added emphasis in each blow the nearer the offending herp was to the chicken coop. In our relationship, I’m the defender as well as the herpetologist, lepidopterist and ornithologist, with a few other ists thrown in for good measure, and vastly prefer my wife’s direction toward a living specimen rather than to bloodied portions scattered throughout the tomatoes and cucumbers.

As we walked to the garden I questioned her about what she’d seen.

“How big was it?”


“What color was it?”

“I don’t know. Yellow, maybe.”

“Any distinguishing marks?”

“I didn’t see any.”

“Did you see its head?”


Translated, this means she didn’t hang around long enough to look.

The snake had been coiled inside a wire containment fence enclosing a potato plant. The closer we got to the garden the slower Lori walked so that by our arrival she lagged behind a good ten feet. She pointed to  the fence amid the overgrown tangle of wild lettuce, bindweed, velvetweed, pigweed, fleabane daisy and pokeberry—ideal habitat, I noted—and I carefully parted the fronds and peered into that green and wild jungle. No snake.

“Where did it go?” she asked.

I assured her that it was no doubt still around. The main bulk of our garden is laid out in three rows of hay bales with a fallow section piled high with sticks and broken branches left over from our ice storm. One border is mostly tall weeds, left there for the grasshoppers. Any self-respecting snake would be delirious with joy over finding such a home. 

I poked around for a few minutes without result. Blister beetles were dispatched with vengeance so I felt as if I’d done my job at least somewhat. 

The question now is how my new non-hysterical wife will handle her garden. Will she fear it, startling at the sight of a coiled hose or a darting skink, or wade into it with impunity? Will she still rely on me for help with snakes and other monsters? Time will tell. If she buys a hoe I’ll know she’s gained the grim capabilities of my sainted grandmother. And if I find her thumbing double-00 shells into the shotgun, I’ll suspect my services are no longer required.

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