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It was the summer of the long snake.
My younger sister Denise saw it first. She thought it was a piece of pipe, fallen from Daddy’s pickup. It lay across the widest part of the driveway, where we turned around or drove out to the barn. It stretched all the way across so it was at least twelve feet long, maybe fifteen. Then she realized it was moving. She screamed.
Mama called Grandpa to come up to the house and kill this snake. Our house was on the hilltop; Granny and Grandpa lived in the hollow. The main road divided our land from theirs, and we had long dirt driveways in full view of one another. We watched Grandpa get into his squat, green, Chevrolet pickup. We gauged his progress with that of the snake who was moving down the hill toward cornfields, a patch of woods, a cluster of peach trees. His glistening blackness was like satin paint, but richer, reflective in its luster. When Grandpa arrived, the snake was almost halfway down the hill, almost to the hardtop road. The snake moved without seeming to move. There was no slithering, no twisting, no effort. He seemed to slip, to glide, with no resistance, straight as a sign, he just was here, then he was not. Yes, it was a he. We just knew; he did not speak to us, but we knew.
Grandpa said, “Why don’t you let him go? He’s not hurtin’ anything.” I think that is what Grandpa said. Maybe he just thought it.
Mama was nearly hysterical over the size of this creature and so were we. He was slipping across the lower driveway, soundlessly, quickly as a mirage. Grandpa sighed, took his hoe from the pickup bed, reached over and stopped the snake. Grandpa was about six feet tall, broad-shouldered with a trunk that went straight from his shoulders to his hips, lean and strong. He wore a fedora, always. In the tobacco field, putting up hay, planting corn, he always wore a hat -- except in the house. Grandpa stepped on the hoe blade, pressing on the snake’s head, or just behind it. We would not get close enough to see. The snake wrapped around Grandpa’s leg, all the way to his hip. Grandpa just stood quietly, his white shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow, his hands gripping the hoe handle and his foot on the blade, this blacksnake hugging his leg, clinging to him. We had expected a massacre, not a struggle. We thought Grandpa would chop his head off and the snake would coil and recoil and thrash. No, this was still and epic somehow. Minutes went by. The snake let go. Grandpa tossed his body into the woods.
I do not remember what was said, perhaps nothing. I do not remember if Grandpa said this old blacksnake has been around here for years, no doubt eating copperheads, protecting us. He had probably watched the barns, ridding us of mice and rats. Surely the blacksnake had cooled himself in the same laurel thickets where we had played, knowing better than to show himself, knowing he could not trust us, but watching us just the same. Perhaps he had climbed a Georgia Belle peach tree, twining himself among the branches, blending so well that we never noticed as we grabbed soft, ripe fruit. Maybe we just collectively thought these things after we had time to reflect.
Mama had a dream: She was walking down an old country road and there was an old blacksnake around her shoulders, harmless and old, his brilliant, shiny body fading to gray. A man was walking with her, he seemed like Uncle Walter, Grandpa’s brother. They walked to a spot in the woods where Uncle Walter told Mama it was time to let that old snake go. She knew the time had been coming and she dreaded it. She had not wanted to let go. Gently, she knelt down and laid that old blacksnake on the forest floor. He slipped quietly away.
The blacksnake divided that summer from all others, divided this world from the next. The blacksnake brought more lessons than I have yet learned.
Photo by Fotolia/Robert Mertl