Snake Blood

My dad has been anxious for me to write about our family and the snakes we have known, however briefly. "There was that one water moccasin at the house on Latexo, coiled up under the fence, half on one side, half on the other. I just sliced right through him with the shovel, like cutting through the rings of a cinnamon roll," Dad would say, in an attempt to inspire my enthusiasm for the subject. I cringed at exposing our family's long-running persecution of snakes to the world. "Okay, you could write about Sam," he'd say. Sam. Don't get my parents started on that dog. My sister and I never had to argue about who was my parents' favorite child; we knew it was the one with all the looks and the brains, the three-legged Spitz-Border Collie mix who came into the family long before we were born - Sam. Mom thinks I should write a book about Sam. "What about That Quail Robert? If they can write a book about a quail, you can write a book about Sam," she says.

Sam was multifaceted. He played hide-and-seek, although my parents stop short of endowing him with the ability to actually count out loud. Sam sang along with the Hamm's beer commercials. Sam could hear the ice cream truck from miles away and would run back and forth from the house to the street, barking his special ice cream bark, until my mom would bring out a dime and buy him an Eskimo pie (which he selected by pointing to the picture on the side of the truck, I suppose). "And he would eat the whole thing and not lose a drop," my mom says, somewhat accusatorily.

Sam also had a special snake bark. My mom would call my dad at work a few blocks away and tell him, "Sam's found a snake in the backyard."

"Did you see it?" my dad would ask.

"I don't have to. Sam's using his snake bark."

Dad would come home and, sure enough, there would be another water moccasin in our back yard, fleeing the bulldozers in the new development behind our house. That snake should've taken his chances with the earth movers rather than face my dad... and Sam. If my dad wasn't slicing up snakes like breakfast rolls, Sam was slinging copperheads and moccasins around like rawhide toys. He'd snap the snake in half before it had a chance to breath a sigh of relief after having escaped the bulldozer, much less strike, then give it a good death shake for theatrical measure, sending pieces flying around the yard, up on the roof, and once, flinging the head of one unfortunate copperhead through the garage door and whamp! right into my mom's leg. My mom swears her leg hurt for days.

As much as my family seemed to hate poisonous snakes, you would think we would have moved from Houston to Oregon or one of those other paradise states that has no venomous serpents. Instead, we headed to the Texas Coast, where all four of the state's most odious snakes live in abundance: coral snakes, copperheads, water moccasins, and - to a lesser degree - rattlers. Once we'd cleared that area of any threat to the rat population, it was time to move on to a 150-acre spread outside Bellville, Texas.

Bellville calls itself "the bluebonnet capital." Nonsense. It's the "water moccasin capital" and I think my dad knew that when we moved. Although we had our share of coral snakes and copperheads - I remember jumping over more than a few copperheads as they basked on the sidewalk or on the drive way, and I think Dad beheaded a thirtysomething-inch coral snake out by the well - it was the moccasins we did battle with. I remember one swimming furiously towards me and my horse one day while we wallowed in our pond. I couldn't get my hot horse to budge until he caught sight of that snake and, I swear, screamed and flew out of the water like a cartoon horse.

These days my dad doesn't even use a shovel or hoe to eradicate the demons; he stomps them to death, protected by his rubber boots. This might paint a rather violent picture of my dad, a very sweet man who doesn't hunt or fish and goes green at the sight of blood. Any blood, that is, except snake blood. "A man's got a right to protect his home," he says.

Not everyone feels this way about snakes. I volunteered for a rather shaky dog rescue group that houses a zillion unfortunate hounds out on a spooky ranch around Manor. I would go out once a week to
feed the poor, overcrowded wretches,
wondering the whole time if this group of doggie saviors didn't need to be turned in for unintentional animal abuse. It was bleak.

One pen was only accessible through a half-completed, dilapidated house. As I approached the pen, I noticed a couple of dogs were not their usual neurotic, hyperactive selves and they had swollen body parts. Uh-oh.

It was difficult to see in the twilight, there was no electricity, and my flashlight was rather dim when I entered the scary house through the narrow passageway, past pieces of insulation that flapped against my legs and shreds of tar paper that hung down from the rafters to brush my face. When I entered the main room, there was just enough light filtering through the cracks in the boarded up windows to make out a huge rattlesnake. He seemed lethargic from the cold (or else he was exhausted from biting several dogs, as it turned out) and only gave me the slightest warning rattle before he slithered into the corner right by the only door out to the pens. The dogs were in trouble and a Western rattlesnake blocked my path. So, what did I do? I drove up to the Texaco on Highway 290 and found a couple of good old boys cum rattlesnake hunters to come back with me and stalk through that dark house and capture that huge snake with a tiny stick with a noose on it. Although they took the snake alive, I was pretty sure the brightest future he could hope for was as a hat band or boot toe.

The rest of the night was a blur of hauling snake-bitten, angry dogs to the vet, where I was met by the leader of the rescue group, who chastised me for not making certain the snake would be released in a nice, rat-infested field or state park. I left with a worse taste in my mouth for the animal rescuers than I did for that old rattler.

But my story pales compared to my sister's snake tale, which verges on the mythic, the folkloric, the legendary. She was driving home to her place out past Oak Hill late one night, and she saw a rattlesnake tearing down the road with a rabbit in hot pursuit. She could hardly believe it, and neither could the rest of us when she told us about it. "This rabbit would spring forward and try to smash the snake with its front legs," she said. We all shook our heads and worried about her.

The next day, her husband killed a rattlesnake on their front porch. Decapitated the thing. When he picked it up by the tail, three little bunnies slid out. My sister was vindicated and we were forced to tear up the commitment papers.

Snakes do make people behave crazily, though. My dog, Domino, was bitten on the nose by a rattler when my insanely paranoid boyfriend Dexter and I took a roadside break on our way across West Texas. By the time we reached Van Horn, her grapefruit-sized head had swelled to watermelon proportions. I ran into the medical clinic for people with the wheezing pooch in my arms. They threw me out post-haste and directed me towards the nearest vet - 90 miles away in Marfa.

The dog survived, but my crazy boyfriend almost didn't. We had to leave Domino at the vet's overnight, and as we were about to leave the parking lot, Dexter swore he saw somebody load her into his pickup truck to steal her. We chased this truck all over Marfa until it pulled up at a house with a party of rough-looking gentlemen drinking on the front lawn. Dexter jumped out of the car and started searching through this fellow's truck and accusing him of stealing a snake-bitten, runty Australian Shepherd. I think the gentlemen were so stunned by Dexter's apparent insanity that they didn't have the heart to beat the crap out of him. Once again, the snake wasn't my least favorite character in the drama.

But none of these encounters were enough to pique my interesting in writing about snakes. It would take one more pivotal snake rendezvous before I was ready to purge these horrid tales from my soul.

About a month ago, I had just finished listening to a radio broadcast about most memorable sounds, things like bacon sizzling and fog horns and sweet stuff like that. I was thinking how I didn't have a most memorable sound and I was, honestly, feeling a little sorry for myself. The dogs were yapping at something outside and I walked barefoot out the back door to scold them. It was dark. They were in the bushes a few feet away harassing something. During a sudden lull in their barking, I heard it. My memorable sound. Shgrrrrrr. Like a bunch of tiny maracas. I screamed at the dogs so loud my tonsils shot out my mouth and the dogs were so startled they actually obeyed me and ran into the house. Then I started screaming for my husband Richard. He came running with a flashlight and carefully, carefully shone it into the bushes. "Oh, my god," we said in unison. He was a big one, with a head the size of my fist, coiled in the strike position, and extremely agitated. But no more so than me.

"What do we do? What do we do?" I wailed, hopping from one foot to the other. "You hold the flashlight on him," Richard said. "We have to kill it this close to the house."

"Kill it? Kill it!?! We've never killed anything!" My voice is about eight octaves higher than its normal chipmunk level.

"Hold the flashlight. I'll get the .22."

Now this is actually pretty funny, because he said it like he was carefully choosing the proper weapon from our arsenal when all we have is a .22, for which Richard had just gotten bullets a week earlier, after having it sit in the back of the closet unused for 15 years. The great white hunter ran in the house to lock and load, while the quivering heap of jelly tried to hold the flashlight still on those hypnotic green eyes in the bushes. Richard ran back out, took aim... and I came absolutely unglued for the first time in 20 years. Weeping, sobbing, shaking. He fired. Right between the eyes. The great snake writhed in the dirt.

"Shoot him again," I sobbed. Pop. The snake was still. I let out a wail of anguish.

"What's wrong with you?" Richard asked calmly. "Do you feel bad for the snake? I do, too. But what else could we do?"

Richard actually skinned the snake, but stopped short of eating it. "Just wasn't
hungry," he says. The skin is now tacked to a post in the barn and when I look at it,
even after a couple of months has passed, my blood runs cold, the cold blood of a snake-killer.

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