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
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