Fiction

A SNAKE TALE

I

The snake was less than a foot long. Its tiny black eyes bulged from a head no bigger than a pencil eraser. Gazing at Ben, its tongue darted in and out, surveying its new surroundings and feeling the vibration from the stereo speakers.

Ben stared back, his eyes fixed on the serpent lying on his living room floor. The scene was a jolt back to a time when he was a child seeking great adventures in the swampy bottom lands and thick woods armed with a pellet gun. As a young boy, Ben would imagine those muggy summer days spent stalking and exploring the wonders of nature as a great expedition into the wilds of a Brazilian rain forest alongside the piranha filled Amazon, or a safari on the other side of the globe where lizards grew as large as alligators and occasionally dined on the neighbor’s dog. Ben captured the demure animal and put it in a jelly jar with a few vines from a spider plant. The snake wrapped its body around the vines and looked perfectly content. It was a garter snake, harmless to anything but bugs, but nonetheless, a menacing creature to some. Ben stared at the snake for an hour, a myriad of thoughts pouring through his mind – childhood memories came flooding back and he had visions from a nightmare that haunted him off and on for twenty years. Later that night, as the ice continued melting off the eves of the house from the March snow, the dream would come to him again.

 II

The snake was at least six feet long and thick as a flagpole. It lay stretched out across the overgrown path enjoying the morning sun.

“Do you see what I see?” Ben nodded his head yes, and checked the glaze in his older friend, Henry’s, eyes.

Henry was only ten, but he already new enough about stalking game to know that silence was the only way to get close to a wild animal. Ben, who would do anything that the older boy said, nodded his head furiously with a wild look in his eye that was a cross between fear and excitement. It was the kind of face that only a kid of nine could make seeing his first snake in the woods, a snake that was longer than he was. “He’s mine,” whispered Henry, raising his Crossman pump action pellet rifle to his shoulder and taking aim. Ben’s little spring action Daisy BB gun rested snugly in his arms, immobile and incapable of doing any harm to the snake, even at close range. The BB would bounce off the snake’s tough skin. The boys were well aware of the limits of their weapons; Ben knew that his gun was designed to shoot at little paper targets, and not at menacing creatures of the deep woods. Earlier in the day Ben had nailed a blue jay right in the breast at fifteen feet, and the bird just squawked and flew to the next limb, ruffling its feathers and cocking its head in a display of arrogance, the kind of look they give right before they dive-bomb the Dog’s food bowl. Henry’s gun on the other hand was a killing machine, and in the three months since his dad brought it home from Sears, had bagged several squirrels, dozens of birds, one rabbit, a really big lizard, and two snakes: a corn snake, and a black-racer.

The pellet hit the ground inches from the snake’s head and sent up a little cloud of dust suspended in the rays of sunlight slicing through the trees. The reptile raised its thick head and spotted the two boys, catching the unmistakable odor of humanity drifting through the muggy air.

“Damn if I didn’t miss ’em!” shouted Henry. The snake took to the woods at an astonishing rate of speed. Henry had filled Ben in on the plan earlier: If they bagged a rat snake, they would skin him with their pocket knives and tack the skin up to the shed out behind Henry’s house until it dried in the sun. Henry started pumping up his rifle furiously and running into the dark woods after the snake, Ben right on his tail.

“You boys stay away from that swamp, there’s snakes as big as you down there.” The words from his mom echoed in Ben’s ears as he felt his feet moving, following Henry, knowing that they were headed right for the swamp.

Neither one of the boys had ever been brave enough to trek through the blackberry vines that grew up three or four feet surrounding the swamp. Every kid in town knew the blackberry thickets were a nesting place for rattlers, and the swamp was full of moccasins, the real devils of the reptile world.

“You sure it’s a rat snake?”

Ben knew that Henry didn’t hear him, the other boy was already a good fifty feet ahead of him, still pumping the Crossman.

Henry, jumping and dodging blackberry vines, was shouting as he went, “come on, we’re gonna lose ‘em.”

The snake followed a jagged path as it maneuvered across the forest floor with the ease of a fish swimming through calm water. The boys could just catch a glimpse of part of the snake’s body as it raced through the underbrush. They were just about to give up as the woods and underbrush got thicker and thicker and the blackberry vines started raking across their pants legs, occasionally tripping one of them up. The bushes were almost chest-high when they stumbled upon a clearing, just in time to see the snake’s tail disappear through a gap under a rotting log.

“Quick, find a rock to put in the hole,” shouted Henry to his young companion. Ben dropped his gun and searched frantically for a suitable rock. Meanwhile the older boy found a stout limb and devised a plan. Ben was dragging a rock toward the hole, panting and soaked with sweat.

“You sure that was a rat snake?”

“Yea you pussy, come on with that rock!” Ben looked at his friend and said nothing. He knew that any reply would just make Henry laugh at him, and possibly bring on some crack about his puny little BB gun. Ben’s adrenaline level was far too high to be bothered with any thoughts that might imply weakness. “If had had a crossman I would have hit him on the first shot,” thought the younger boy.

“Put that rock over the hole! Quick before he gets away! Now when I lift the log with this stick, you grab his tail and I’ll shoot ’em in the head!” Ben was not too keen on this idea, but he did not question the older boy’s commands.

Henry lodged the stick under the log and pushed hard, trying to loosen the log from the place where it had become molded to the ground. Ben stood by, trying not to let Henry see him shaking, hiding his anxiety with a stern look on his face.

“One, two, threeee!” Henry pushed with all his boyhood strength on “three.” The log flipped over, landing on the ground with a loud, mushy, thump. Henry lost his footing with the last shove, and fell face first into crater where the log had been.

It took less than a second for the snake’s precision strike to land its five-inch fangs into the soft flesh behind Henry’s ear. The huge snake did not waste any time, drawing back, striking again, the fangs went right through Henrys shoulder. The older boy did not even have time to scream before the snake had bitten him three more times; again on the arm, and twice in the back. Ben was in shock as he witnessed the lightning fast snake reaping vengeance on his friend. Blood was oozing from the holes in Henry’s body as the snake disappeared into the woods. Henry tried to get to his feet, screaming at the unbelievable pain that was racing through every inch of his nervous system, but he only managed to get up on one knee before he collapsed and fell back into the hole. His skin had already started turning pale.

Ben knew a lot about snakes, he could name every species from his reptiles and amphibians book. He didn’t need the book to tell him this was no rat snake, but a large, pissed off moccasin.

The tears flooded his face as he watched his friend drifting off into unconsciousness. Ben knew there was no hope for him, the first bite to the neck was enough to do him in. Henry’s neck, upper arm, and head began to swell like a balloon, and blood started oozing from his mouth and nose. His eyes were wide open and cloudy, still locked in terror.

Ben, still immobile as an oak tree and white as cottonwood, snapped into semi consciousness, shaking himself free from the severe shock that had paralyzed his young body. Only his heart moved. His breath came in short gasps. The whole scene from the millisecond it took the snake to strike and the last breath of Henry had been a flash in his now warped sense of time and space. His legs, under the power of some unknown motor neuron in the brain, started moving; they soon turned him toward the road away from the swamp, running at top speed. Ben’s uncontrollable screaming echoed through the bottom-land. Unable to see where he was going through the tears he stumbled to the trail and somehow made his way home, both guns still propped up against a tree.

          III

Ben woke from the dream shaking and sweating. The room was cold, and his covers were on the floor. Lightning illuminated the winter scene outside his window like a flash bulb. Snow-drifts piled up outside the window. It was the biggest snow storm of the century. “Winter Storm ’93,” they were already calling it. The power was out so Ben lit a candle and made his way to the kitchen. In the glow of the candle, the image of the jar on top of the refrigerator was magnified into a large silhouette on the white wall, casting the tiny snake’s image into a large mural across most of the wall. The snake seemed to be enjoying his new home, his tongue darting in and out with three-second intervals. Ben picked up the jar and stared at the snake, and he wondered what a baby snake would be doing out of the ground in the middle of a snowstorm.

It had been warm the day before the storm, almost threatening an early Spring the first week of March. Maybe Domino, Ben’s cat, had brought it in, which didn’t make sense, since there was only one scratch on the little snake’s belly. Usually the squirrels, chipmunks, birds, lizards, and other various small animals of the neighborhood that Domino hunted had their bodies mutilated into sections and then presented in nice little artistic sections to the household. He seemed to take much pleasure in chewing the heads off squirrels and leaving them on the living room floor.

Ben doubted the infant rat snake would have survived the wrath of Domino unless the cat had somehow caught the snake fear that haunted the majority of humanity. Of course, snake phobia in humans was nothing compared to human phobia in the snake world. Even the biggest venomous snakes, would more often flee a human rather than take chances against a hoe or a shotgun. Ben remembered seeing huge snakes hung up by their tails in his grandmother’s neighborhood, their heads chopped of with a gardening hoe. It was always a special occasion when someone in the neighborhood killed a rattlesnake. Everyone would come by to check it out, and the rattles cut off. His cousin, who lived on the hill behind Grandmother’s house, had a couple of the huge rattlesnake heads preserved in big jars he kept by his window. Grandmother had around fifty rattles hanging in the window of her damp flower-house. She left the constrictors alone. She new that the rat snakes and corn snakes would keep the hungry rabbits out of her garden.

Ben chuckled to himself and the baby snake, thinking about his “Wild Kingdom” tactic of putting a ballpoint pen behind the snake’s head when he captured it. This was the way to catch a snake, something he had learned from T.V., books, and practice in the woods as a child. Jim, the hero of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” was Ben’s idol. He would fantasize about being Jim when he got old enough. Jim always seemed to be having a blast capturing wild animals. He would be in a cave in some cliff in Mexico holding on to the legs of a terrified condor with a fifteen-foot wingspan, or in a swamp in Africa wrestling with a thousand pound water buffalo. Marlon Perkins, in between selling life insurance, would be sitting in a chopper, or on top of an elephant, giving deadpan color commentary on Jim’s heroics. “What a great show!” Ben said out loud, surprising himself. He never missed an episode on Saturday evenings. Jim still worked the late-night talk show circuit, hauling around giant komodo dragons in a wooden box.

For three days the snake and the cat kept Ben company in his dark house while the city struggled to recover from the storm – the dream would come again.

          IV

The March sun turned the remnants of the massive winter storm into a flowing river of life, as the nutrients ran free with the water from the melting snow. Ben could feel the warmth on his back as he made his way through the cluttered street to the pet store. The sign out front read: “Special this week–rare South American frogs– purchase two and get a months supply of mice.”

“Surely frogs don’t eat mice. . . no way, not frogs,” thought Ben–maybe if they had been raised in a glass cage, fed once a week on mice and only mice. That was exactly what had happened, Ben learned later from the boy working in the pet store. Ben figured that people who would lay down $1500.00 for a three pound frog would get a much bigger kick at cocktail parties feeding the frog something that was theoretically higher up on the food chain. It would be too boring to feed the frog worms– they didn’t run or bleed.

Walking into the pet store, all of Ben’s senses came to life at once. His ears filled with a chorus of fifty birds screaming different tunes, each of them in a different, dissonant, key, all of which carried a ring of desperation. The larger birds expressed their desperate plea in violent bursts of high-pitched screams. Gnawing away at the wire with their defenseless beaks, they flapped what was left of their wings, trying to maintain their equilibrium on the perch so they would not fall into the mess at the bottom of the cage. The smaller birds, packed fifteen or more to a cage, hopped and flew around looking for some impossible exit through the little bars that caged them. Two sickly little birds that looked like little ruffled feather balls sat at the bottom of the cage in a stupor, shaking as if they had the chills.

At the same time Ben’s ears were assaulted by the sick sounding bird choir, his nose was getting a one-of-a-kind pet store blast. It was too much at one time, and he let out an explosive sneeze into his hands.

“Watch out!” screamed the pudgy owner, as he ran towards Ben, nearly tripping over a display of dog collars.

“These are some very expensive birds, and they don’t need your blasted cold!”

“Sorry!” snapped Ben.

Fred, of Fred’s Exotic Pets, was in the middle of explaining to a huge woman draped in furs and gold on the advantages of the latest scientifically sound pet treats for her miniature Chihuahua.

The dog was sporting a diamond studded collar and yellow teeth. Little dog lips curled into a snarl as his puny body shook out of control against the woman’s bosom creating a rhythmic cellulite jiggle. Peering from huge black eyes way too big for its head, the dog seemed to reflect the madness of the whole scene.

“Where do you keep the grub worms?” inquired Ben sheepishly.

“In the back past the fish room,” growled Fred, emphasizing the word “back” with a dramatic wave of his arm, pointing a fat hand in the direction of the fish room.

The air grew cooler as Ben entered the dark fish chamber. The bird choir gave way to the purr of the aerators humming in time, keeping the captive fish alive with manufactured oxygen.

Past the fish room was the reptile room. An entire wall lined with all kinds of live food for the pets. One shelf had five gallon aquariums filled with wood shavings and white and black shiny mice. On another shelf, ten gallon tanks held white rats and guinea pigs for the medium sized snakes. Wire cages held little rabbits with pink noses chewing furiously on soggy mush that used to be lettuce and cabbage. The last shelf had cardboard boxes with grubworms, crickets, and tiny tree frogs.

Fred’s feature of the week, the South American frogs where housed in a hundred gallon tank that was all dressed up like a little rain-forest. The frogs sat motionless. He could see the hind legs and tail of a white mouse sticking out of the mouth of the largest frog. The mouse was still alive and its tail was whirling around like a wiggler who had just been stabbed with a fisherman’s hook. Its hind legs kicked furiously at the air. In an eye-blinking moment, the huge frog threw open its mouth and clamped back down on the mouse’s back like a vice. In one more gulp the mouse disappeared. The frog was stock still, its eyes glowing with satisfaction.

Ben reluctantly bid farewell to Fred, taking his little box full of grub worms.  Fred, being the business man he was, gave a contrived smile to Ben along with a well-rehearsed spiel on the advantages of feeding his new snake grubworms. According the Fred, the self-proclaimed expert on animals, grub-worms contained just the right amount of protein to insure a healthy start for his young garter. Fred then assured Ben that if he continued to buy his grubworms from him that he would be happy to knock a little off the price he charged for the domestically raised worms, and that if he needed a mate for his pet he could buy one from him for $19.95–”best price in town!” proclaimed Fred. “I’ll keep that in mind” said Ben, noticing the phony kindness that suddenly overcame Fred’s manner. Driving home Ben thought of the work ahead of him clearing out the fallen trees from his yard.

          V

The buzz of chain saws filled the air drowning out the sounds of the blue jays and mocking birds screaming at each other in competition for seed on the bird feeder. Ben sat on a brick wall surrounding the concrete patio, taking in the warm sun. The jar with the little snake sat on the other end of the wall. Three feet from the jar, the huge tomcat lay in a crouched position, starring intently at the jar. Domino’s long tail was rigid, standing straight up in the air. Only the last three inches of his tail moved slowly in an arch back and forth. The cat had been in this position for the past hour, his body perfectly still except for his eyes and tail. The snake didn’t seem to notice the cat; it was curled around the twig, motionless, its little tongue creeping out slowly every several minutes. Three dead grub worms lay at the bottom of the jar, no longer a viable form of nutrition to the snake.

Later that night Ben walked out of his house to the ten foot pile of brush and wood at the curb in front of his house–remnants from the storm, waiting to be loaded into a truck and taken to the landfill. The cats were locked in the house, the pet-door clamped shut. A lone moth fluttered up high in the ten thousand watt streetlight.

“There you go little guy, food for your journey home,” said Ben as he opened the top of the jar.

He let the baby loose at the edge of the mountain of limbs and watched him, curiously.

The snake’s tongue fluttered in and out as his surveillance system went on-line. Slowly the snake started moving forward, gaining speed as he gained confidence, until he finally disappeared into the brush. Ben slept well that night.

     VI     

The next morning Ben heard the neighbor’s dog shouting his morning sermon, competing with alarm clock. Stepping into the shower he heard a huge truck rumbling down the street and the violent squeal of worn brakes as it stopped at the end of his street.

“I thought they came on Thursdays” mumbled Ben to the hot water that was bringing him to life.

“Yo!!!! shouted the garbage man to his driver, and the huge truck rumbled to the next house.

Ben could hear the commotion through his walls as the men made their way toward his house. He was unconcerned about it, because he had taken his garbage out in advance.

“Damn, we didn’t have that much garbage,” thought Ben suddenly as it occurred to him that the truck was still out front five minutes later. “Oh no!!” he said out loud. Throwing a towel around him, Ben raced for the front door and ran outside just in time to see the truck pulling away. In the truck the pile of brush was being smashed by the massive hydraulic mouth.

Ben yelled, “Stop! my snake’s in there!!” Sirens sounded in the distance, as the garbage men pointed and roared with laughter.

Bill Ledbetter, 1996

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