Late one summer my older brother Greg came across a snake skin clinging to a rock on the pine needle floor of my family’s hillside property. The skin appeared at once wispy and crispy, like dragon wing Kleenex, and it was gray, and tattered. He carried it into the house, where our father poked at it with a pencil and explained how the snake had gotten loose of it by rubbing up against a rough surface. Healthy snakes shed their skin as they grew, and our hillside sheltered many healthy snakes, our father said.
They prospered, these snakes. They thrived; held christenings and debutante balls and weddings, scattering their dated dresses about the landscape. And our family lived amongst them. Our family – of all families.
At this – the sight of a snake skin in her house, my father’s blasé announcement that we lived on a hillside teeming with snakes – my mother shuddered. Snakes terrified her. She seemed always scanning for them, and if we happened on one while out for a drive she would order my father to stop the car, back up, and drive over the snake again and again until we were sure it had truly buckled under our 2,500 pound station wagon and would not simply lie in cunning wait for our return, attach itself to our undercarriage, slither up through the ventilation system and coil, hissing, at my mother’s feet.
She had heard of a snake getting into a car once. She had heard of a snake coming up through a toilet, once. She had heard of a snake infiltrating a basement and laying the eggs which hatched umpteen baby snakes, which themselves reproduced, turning a nice, family home into an actual snake den. Once. She’d heard about this, once.
Ten snake species live in Montana; only one, the Prairie Rattlesnake, is venomous, reassures the state’s Fish and Wildlife division. Of course, no one wants to run into a rattlesnake, but my mother’s phobia extended to the other nine, hapless species – your garter snakes, your milk snakes, your bull snakes.
Faced with any of these snakes, my mother screamed, trembled and clutched at whatever might be handy – be it another person, be it a building, be it a tree – until the snake had moved on, at which point she stood absolutely still for several minutes more lest the snake, in confusion or malice, return.
Settling in a glass, steel and pavement world would have been a good choice for my mother; instead, we lived in the country, and her three children tramped around the outdoors because that’s what you do when you’re surrounded by it.
“Where have you been?” she might ask us as we leaned against our kitchen counter, gulping plastic tumblers of Kool-Aid, sweaty and breathless from a long afternoon exploring fields and dry creek beds.
“Playing in the hills,” we’d come back.
“Ug,” she’d say. “Snakes! All of that tall grass back there! Snakes love tall grass!”
But we hadn’t seen any snakes, we’d report; just snake skins, glimpses of the fragile, gossamer stockings, never the lady’s leg. We never saw any snakes.
“Oh, but you will,” she’d say. “You will.”
And then what, I never thought to ask. Would we die? Go blind? Pee ourselves? Become drug addicts? Republicans? What, pray tell, were the consequences of encountering snakes? If only I’d asked. But I didn’t.
Perhaps it goes without saying: My mother rarely ventured outdoors. Camping? “Snakes!” Hiking? “Snakes!” Fishing? “Snakes!” But periodically she’d start up on the exercise, which meant walking on the grassy shoulders of country roads. We’d go along with her on our bikes, pulling a few hundred yards ahead before circling back to check on her. Every so often she’d hear a rustle in the grass and jump.
On just such a walk I’d gotten way out in front, my filthy bruised summer legs peddling vigorously to attain the momentum I’d need to make it up our hill, expertly navigating the ruts along our shale road, riding out of my mind, really, 9 years old and pure speed. No fear. Pure speed.
Naturally, this is when I saw the snake.
When you’re a kid, you can pretend, as I did, that your mother’s likes and dislikes, her fantasies and worries, her hopes and dreams and fears, don’t matter. That they don’t touch you. But of course, they do.
I braked hard, tires skidding, shaking palms slipping off the handlebars as I fell, the snake close, very close, panic coursing through my body as I scrambled out from under the bike and ran to my mother, weeping, screaming, “Snake!”
I pointed at where it had been stretched across the road, sunning itself, a good 100 yards away. But by then it was gone.
She’d seen it; my brothers had seen it. We all agreed: This was a massive snake, nearly as long as the road was wide. I’d suckled on my mother’s phobia. Absorbed it. Manifested it. And no way, no way, was I going to walk past the spot where I’d seen that snake. That snake was out there. Somewhere. Mad at me.
“Harmless,” my mother said. “Just a bull snake. Big one.”
Just a bull snake? Just a bull snake? Where was she getting this whole “just a” business, anyway?
“It’s long gone. Come on up the hill.”
I clung to my mother. She sent my brother up the hill with my bike to get my father, and when he came with the car I collapsed in the back seat, feet propped up, high above the floorboards.
I’d outgrow this fear, many years later. Twenty years later? Probably. It didn’t happen all at once. Several ridiculous scenes followed, culminating in the evening that my brothers, mother and I stood on our front steps throwing free weights at a small rattlesnake that had the misfortune to snooze in our yard. Most of the weights missed. He probably died of boredom.
It’d be swell at this point to report that I faced down a snake in the wilderness and prevailed, or learned to appreciate the beauty of snakes during a visit to a reptile sanctuary, or encountered a snake during a walk with my young son and decided, “This fear stops now, with my generation!” But none of that happened. I’m not going to go out looking for snakes, but I can live with the knowledge that they’re out there. Somewhere.
The fear just sloughed away. I guess I shed it, like you do.