When I built my bathroom, outside, attached it to the end of my cabin, I decided to leave it exposed to the elements. There’s a roof, of course, and walls, but no door at either end of the bathroom. A little rain blows in. Summer heat billows in, and winter cold cuts through. Vines creep through the lattice. And last week, at eleven o’clock at night, a three-foot snake crept in and wrapped itself around the post beside my toilet paper holder.
My arm brushed within inches of its curious forked tongue.
There’s a creative nonfiction trend these days for writers to publish crude and profane language in their narrative copy. What I said, and how I said it, when I jumped backwards, pedaling away from the snake, that I really thought was a copperhead, is too trashy for print.
I texted a picture of the serpent, dimly lit in the intruding darkness, to some friends. Which did include a four-letter word, even though way overused in every context, that still packs some powerful emphasis. My caption with the photo was something about being “freaked-the-#@*%-out” and was not an overstatement.
One of my dear friends, a poet, texted back to say that since it didn’t bite me, and since it was in fact a copper-colored rat snake, which is not venomous, the she’d like to call to my attention that snakes are strong totem animals. They symbolize shedding old and unwanted behavior in favor of supple new life choices. For a writer, that could mean a stack of pages with words and phrases, paragraphs and pages of good creative work that is colorful, fresh and alive.
Somebody else told me a snake in the bathroom simply means it’s time for me to get back out my hammer and saw and build some new walls and put up a door. But that might not work if a sneaky snake really wants to borrow your bathroom. I have now confirmed with five people that a moccasin was found in a neighbor’s bathroom after a big flood on Waterhole Branch, and that it was quickly “managed” with a bladed and long-handled garden tool. Managing the clean up operation is reported to have taken much longer. And the door to the outside was closed to the intruder.
It’s certain Emily Dickinson got it right when she said the sight of a narrow fellow in the grass would make her go zero at the bone.
And it would seem likely, following this recent snake business, that I’d be very mindful and watchful for them. But nope. It took a scrawny little girl dog named Peewee to take the guard duty for me.
When I’m in Tuscaloosa, sometimes I go to Carollton in Pickens County to visit with my old friend Benny, the fellow who gave to me my little dog Bobby. And especially this time of year when blueberries are thick on the branches. He’s got half a dozen big bushes that yield quarts of berries. Me and Bobby hit the road for the forty-five-minute trip. And wound up piling into Benny’s 4Runner and running some errands with him up and down the country backroads.
Back at the house, where the blueberries grow in his front yard, down the hill underneath a stand of oldgrowth hardwoods and a few pines, Benny fixed me up with a gallon zip-loc bag, and made a quick run to the Dollar General while I gathered from God’s blue bounty. Bobby at my feet. Along with his siblings and cousins, the old pack. They tussled and scrapped and renewed their acquaintance. I picked berries. And not once did I turn a hawk eye toward the ground under the bushes, except to make sure I wasn’t stepping in a hole.
The family of Red-shoulder hawks in the trees above the Roughdraft Cabin on Waterhole Branch managed well the snake population in their territory. One day, I saw at different times, two of the hawks winging to nearby branches each with a snake clutched in its talons.
When Benny got back he wheeled the 4Runner into the woods where I was. Pulled up close and got out. “I’ll help you,” he said. I held up my bag more than half full already and told him I had plenty. “Let’s pick’em so they don’t go to waste.” I agreed we’d keep at it for a bit, and said something about how harvesting would also help increase the yield next year. He wasn’t sure that was the way it worked. I said I could be wrong. We laughed.
Then I noticed Peewee. She was fifteen feet away, a scruffy little gal, a white-and-tan feist with skinny legs and a sweet face. Loves a pat on the head. Bobby showed her some attention with a lick now and then, tails wagging. Peewee had broken away from the crowd of pups pretty much under my feet, lying around, and only sometimes bouncing up, but mostly taking it easy.
I watched Peewee’s busy interest with something on the ground, ears perked, tail up. She was looking straight down right in front of her paws. She dipped her head, cautiously, and jerked it up. She moved her rear-end in an arc, keeping her face down, eyes on the same spot. Then she did this little pouncing hop, except backwards.
“I think Peewee’s over a snake,” I said. Benny said it was probably a mouse. Then he turned and saw her do the same motions, make the same moves. He went to check. I started zippering my bag of blueberries.
“’Hoa, damn!” Benny leaped back, hands snatched up. I trotted over. He held up a hand. “Watch out.” Then I saw the muscled coil of velvet brown and black, and the triangular head of a viper, a wound-up Timber Rattlesnake ready to strike, black rattles like a warning finger that demanded the whole world stay back! Oddly, it was not rattling its danger signal. Almost like it had complete and certain control of its personal space.
By now Benny had collected two long sticks from a convenient pile right behind him. “Run up to the house. There’s a 44-gallon garbage can beside the driveway. Bring it!”
“What the hell?”
“We’re gonna round it up into the garbage can. I’m not gonna kill it. We’ll relocate it.”
Adrenaline wiped my mind of any objection and I ran for the house. I snatched out the liner and dropped the bundle of garbage and turned and hauled-ass back downhill to Benny. He stood wide-legged like a pirate, one stick in each hand. I set down the garbage can. We were both within two steps of the rattler, hollering at the dogs to stay back. I put Bobby and Johnnie and Billy (especially rambunctious Billy) in the 4Runner. Peewee had run away, nowhere in sight. The other dogs were standing back and wanted no part in this movie.
“You take this one,” he said, handing me a stick. Both sticks were at least six feet long. “I’ll handle this one with the fork. I’ll trap its head and you get under his body and whip him up and into the can.”
“Nope. I will not do that.” He shot me a look. “I ain’t gonna have a five-foot rattlesnake loose on the end of a stick. Its head will be lashing like a bullwhip. No way, man!”
“C,mon,” he said and trapped the rattler’s head. Still no rattling. Like it knew that the landowner whose property he patrolled did not mean to kill him. I would later learn timber rattlers are the most docile of the species.
“Hey, one of your forks is not touching the ground! The snake can…”
It whipped its head and was free of the fork. Jerked its head into a sideways S. Then it started rattling. With steady intensity. More a buzz like a giant electric motor with some kind of gravely 60-cycle hum. Or a million baritone cicadas. I’d never heard a sound just like it. But I’ll never forget it.
“Okay, dude. New plan. F— this!” That word again.
“Alright, turn the can over. Push it close. I’ll sweep him in.” Benny crouched like a Samurai.
I pushed the can on its side and slid it close to the rattler, now twisting and striking. “Closer!” Benny yelled. I plowed it through the leaves right up to the snake and Benny rolled it into the opening and jerked the can upright. I would later learn that 8 out of 10 snakebites come during attempts to kill or catch the snake.
We looked like two men who’d just quit a fight. Eyes big, feet wide, arms cocked. Sweating. Not a word said for half a minute. “Damn!” I said.
“Yep,” Benny said.
I wiped my hands on my pants, and let the dogs out. In the lull, Benny told me he hasn’t killed a snake in thirty years. That he was pulling himself out of a streambed on a hunting trip, grabbed for a root and pulled himself up eye-level to a moccasin on the bank. It didn’t strike. Could have. Benny said, “Okay, you didn’t bite me. I won’t kill you.” And that’s been his rule ever since with all snakes.
I didn’t tell him that in a panic I might’ve killed a harmless rat snake last week except that it vacated my bathroom while I ran to get a hiking stick leaned beside my front door. I was actually glad it was gone. I didn’t want to get into it with the snake. Some voice from my grandfather in my head telling me I can’t kill everything that scares me, or poses some danger. I thought of somebody drunk behind the wheel. Or head down and sober, texting through an intersection.
Anyway, I would also later learn from reptilesmagazine.com that there are 32 different species of rattlesnakes, and are so ubiquitous, “You always know a rattlesnake is probably nearby.” Might as well learn their ways, stay watchful, and keep clear. For instance, I now know they are very likely found in the near vicinity of berry bushes and vines because that’s where they are likely to score a meal. An unlucky bird, or mouse, or squirrel. I’d be too big to eat, but if I stepped on a rattlesnake lying in wait it would react in defense. There’s a good chance this fellow had moved away from the blueberry bushes because of me tromping around. And was interrupted on its way by a little dog named Peewee.
Homeowners should be wary of birdseed falling from feeders, where creatures gather to snack on the spillage, and become prey to snakes on the hunt, I later learned.
“I want to get a video of the snake,” I said. Benny said he’d take off the lid for me. “Hold on a minute,” I said. “I need some height. I don’t want to hover close over the garbage can.” Benny told me it couldn’t get out. I later learned that a snake can “stand” on the last third of its body for climbing. “The bass boat on the trailer,” I said. “I’ll crawl up on the bow and shoot straight down.” I got into place while Benny moved the can near the boat. He pried off the lid, and I made a ten-second video. I stopped filming just as Billy ran up and jumped against the garbage can, dumping the rattler at Benny’s feet. He yelled at Billy, who took off, as Benny instantly used the lid to scoop the snake back into the can.
(CLICK THIS LINK TO SEE AND HEAR THE VIDEO I SHOT.)
“That could’ve been bad,” I said.
“Yep,” he said, looking a little pale. Then he asked me to ride with him as he relocated it.
“Nope,” I said. He told me the lid wouldn’t come off with the handles tightly clamped into the groove, even if the garbage can rolled down a hill. I said something about snakes on a plane, and Benny laughed and shook his head. “I wouldn’t ride in a vehicle with a five-foot timber rattler if it was in a Wells Fargo safe,” I said. I couldn’t erase the scene of Billy toppling the can. Shit happens. I went to my station wagon and got a bungee cord and convinced Benny to use it on the handles as an extra precaution.
We looked around for Peewee. We hadn’t seen her since the excitement began. Benny called her. All the other dogs gathered around him, including Bobby, but no Peewee. We both thought of it at the same time. That she might have been bitten when she was dancing around the rattlesnake. “But I think she would have yipped,” he said. I agreed. And crossed my fingers. I knew Benny was likewise hoping for the best.
I got the text before I crossed into the Tuscaloosa city limits. “Peewee’s okay.”
I walked into my sister’s kitchen and dumped the blueberries into a colander. I stood at the sink holding the spray nozzle, mindlessly directing a stream of water over the berries, stirring them around with my fingers. I convinced myself while washing the fruit that both the rat snake in my bathroom and the rattler in the berry patch had each crossed my path for a reason, to evoke some metaphor that would awaken in me a deeper understanding of something essential to my spiritual growth.
Could be that Alabama’s beloved author, Helen Keller, has already laid it out for me. “Security is mostly a superstition,” she wrote. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Plus, there are fresh-picked blueberries to be had. Throw in a rattlesnake and it’s the stuff of poetry. I’ll work on it.