My sisters and I have an inbred aversion to snakes. It runs in the family. Our Mother feared the repulsive things, as did Grandma, as did her Mother, and so on back to the Garden of Eden. Who knows but that the Genesis story may have underestimated the situation when it says that Eve was beguiled by the serpent. Perhaps, instead, she was scared into submission by the diabolical creature glaring at her through slit-pupiled eyes from among the leaves of the apple tree. One can imagine him flicking his forked tongue menacingly as he pushed the forbidden fruit toward her, hissing “Ssssurely you don’t really think you’ll die if you just taste this deliciousss apple, do you?”
For Mom, snakes were like a moral issue. Maybe she feared we would happen upon a one who would do a quick transition into a suave, grinning charlatan. He would then make us grand promises of wealth and happiness if we would follow him down a shaded, flower-strewn path that would terminate in the slime pits of sin.
We rarely left the house without Mom’s admonition, “Don’t get on a snake!” That was her way of warning us to always be watchful, because you never know when a snake is going to be out there waiting for you. When we went out to play, or to pick berries, or to go check on the yearlings in a far pasture she would always send us off with the familiar warning. I could almost hear it the day I left home to go to Bluefield Junior College: “Study hard, be a lady, wear your overshoes, and don’t get on a snake!”
When we saw a snake, we felt we felt obligated to try to dispatch it with whatever was at hand, such as rocks or fence rails if we didn’t have a hoe with us. Usually the snake would slither away unharmed while we looked for a weapon, but we at least tried to kill it.
Once on an early summer day I was sweeping out the barn loft, preparing it for the new crop of hay, when out of the old hay left in the corner slid a large black snake. It paid me no mind as it glided across the patch of sunlight that shone through the small window. As the sun glinted on its shiny blue-black body I was mesmerized by it. It was beautiful in a forbidding sort of way. There were tools within my reach that I could have used to smash its head, but I stood as if bewitched and watched it move gracefully across the floor and slide into a crack in the wall. Oh, the shame of it! In the tradition of mother Eve, I had been fascinated by something I was supposed to disdain. And once again, the antagonist had prevailed! Thereafter, every time I had to climb into the barn loft I feared reaching for the rail to hoist myself up, and grabbing instead the cold, slick body of that snake!
One year a bookmobile from the public library in Independence came to our school. That was exciting! I had read the 60 or 70 books we had in our school library several times, except for Vern’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Stephenson’s Kidnapped, neither of which appealed to me—but that’s another story. I found a book on reptiles in the bookmobile and checked it out. I learned all about poisonous and harmless snakes. The simple, harmless ones with which we were familiar were probably of much more benefit to us alive than dead. They help control rodents and other pests. The dangerous ones were easily identified by the triangular shaped head, the pits below the eyes, the retractable fangs, etc. When I informed my mother of these facts she was not impressed by my sudden wisdom. She countered “And who is going to get down in front of a snake and check out its eyes or fangs?” So the bludgeoning should continue. Kill first, then look at the signs.
Occasionally a neighbor would tell of killing a rattlesnake or copperhead, but not often, and almost never in Flatridge. My sister, Garnetta, and I did, however, have a couple of encounters. One day we were picking blackberries in the field above the woods. Mom wanted us always to take our dog, Tippy, with us for our protection. She thought Tippy was the most intelligent creature on our farm, and she would save us in the event a snake should threaten us. We were watchful, but I was armed with the confidence my newfound knowledge of snakes brought me. I could take care of us. I knew the difference between dangerous and harmless reptiles!
We were picking berries around a pile of rocks when we heard a rattling sound in the dry leaves under the berry bushes. Of course it had to be a Rattlesnake. I had never seen or heard one, but the sound, according to my reading, was unmistakable. My sister and I stepped backwards and we stared in the direction of the sound. Tippy, on the other hand, wanted to investigate, so she went under the berry bushes. We heard the rattle again, then we saw it coiled near the rocks. Tippy bolted out and streaked across the valley and through the woods toward home. No, I did not test my knowledge of Rattlers by looking for pits or fangs. I didn’t even check the shape of its head. We took our cue from the dog and ran also, leaving the patch of juicy ripe berries to the birds. Meanwhile, Mom had seen Tippy dash home and hide in the woodshed. She dropped the load of fire wood she was bringing to the kitchen and went off to find us.
The one other dangerous snake we encountered was a Copperhead where we were playing on a swinging bridge near our Aunt Ella’s house. We crossed the narrow bridge and jumped from the log that formed the bottom step. The log was hollow and rotting with age. The interior was soft and rust colored. When we turned to go back across the bridge we saw the coiled snake in the end of the log. It was almost invisible because it was the same color as the rotting log. I didn’t have to check all its credentials to know what it was. The triangular shaped head was quite visible and proof enough, because I remembered the colored picture of a Copperhead in the book I had read. We ran to get Dad, but the snake was gone when we returned.
When a snake of any variety infringed upon our territory it was cause for excitement and action. Once Mom was straining the milk in the spring house. I was talking to her through the open window when I saw a simple garden snake lying on a rafter above her head. I knew she would panic when I called her attention to it, so I tried to be calm and matter-of-fact. But with her there was nothing calm or matter-of-fact about the presence of a snake. She almost fainted on the spot! Surely that creature had been lurking up there all the while, watching her and plotting some chicanery, such as dropping down into a bucket of milk, just for spite! She screamed and fled, literally shaking with fear. My older and braver sister, Mildred, went for a hoe to kill it, but how was she to get the thing down from the rafter and into a killing position? Just then a neighbor came by on his way to Uncle Bill’s mill. He stopped to see what all the commotion was about, and volunteered to slay the 16-inch monster for us. However, when we went back into the spring house, it was not there. No doubt it had been as frightened as we were and took the first opportunity to hide itself. Our neighbor went looking for it in all the corners, then in the dry leaves around the back of the building. The frightened, trembling snake had probably sought refuge in the first hole it found.
My Mother never got over her fear of snakes, and although I know that it is irrational I will probably hold on to my qualms, too. Actually, snakes would rather hide than to attack, and so, to borrow a statement from a famous American of that time, the most we really have to fear is the fear itself.