It’s a beautiful spring day in central Virginia. No humidity (a cause for celebration in itself), bright blue skies, a light breeze, and the strong smell of freshly-cut grass, still soaked with dew. A faint smell of wisteria and lilac float in the air. My azaleas and clematis are blooming in bright pinks and purples. Somewhere, new mulch is being laid. I’m strangely motivated to join the ranks of retired professionals-turned-gardeners. Ah, the thrill of being in nature’s living room!
I open my shed doors to stand among the piles of clippers, gas cans, and soccer chairs laying hap-hazzardly across bins of tennis racquets and baseball bats. I really should re-organize this. But not today. I’m on a mission. The May air calls to me. The dirt in my flower beds longs to be turned over. I stretch out my hand toward the stackable shelving filled with an array of unrelated shed items–hiking boots, power tools, moldy footballs, orange cones. There’s a spade and some gloves somewhere on that shelf. Curled through the wire shelf housing a mass of tangled bungee cords, is a moving bungee. Lifting its head in expectation, a tan and brown speckled snake faces me. It’s small, but I quickly retract my hand. I know he’s aware of me. A rush of thoughts crowd my consciousness.
It is poisonous?
It’s a baby.
It looks like a copperhead.
Is the head a triangle? It seems a little triangular to me.
Should I back away?–I take a step outside and close the door.
No! If it’s a baby copperhead, it ‘s highly venomous. Plus, it will get bigger.
I can’t have a poisonous snake living in my yard. What if it bites one of us?
(I recall the trauma of a neighbor child being bitten by 2 different baby copperheads one summer, and I open the door again. He’s still there.)
Should I kill it? How do you kill a poisonous snake without getting bit?
I have no weapons. What kind of weapon do you use against a snake?
Memories of Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” flood my mind, and I almost wish I had a mongoose.
What if this is only a rat snake, come to my garden to eat the mice that frighten me in winter when they squeeze into my basement? Or those pesky voles who eat my tulip bulbs?
And what if his nice vermin-eating mother is curled up at home, waiting for his return, and he never comes home?!
No, snakes don’t take care of each other. He no longer has a mother.
All of this has transpired in less than 5 seconds. The snake slithers to the ground, and I obligingly side-step safely inside the shed, watching it on the ground before me.
It’s got to die. I can’t risk it.
I grab a red plastic gas can and place it on top of the snake. The can wiggles.
No good. I glance around frantically. The hiking boot! I grasp it by the ankle with my right hand and lift the gas can off the snake with my left. The harmless little reptile snaps into a rigid coil and lifts its angry head. Its jaws open, revealing a small, white diamond-shaped mouth.
Does it have fangs? I don’t know. As it makes a little lunge, I slam the ball of the boot down on its somewhat triangular head. Wham! He flips sideways, twitching, trying to crawl into the safety of my day lily patch. Oh, no you don’t! You don’t fake a strike at me and get away with it!
Wham! Wham! Wham! It leaps lightly into the air with every forceful pounding of the boot. The twitching ceases. Wham!
I look at him triumphantly. The head is definitely not a triangle now. It’s quite flat.
I have joined the ranks of those unafraid to kill vipers. I declare myself a hero.
And then my heart thumps wildly inside of my chest, and feel faint and jittery.
I’m still alive! What if he had bitten me and I had gone into cardiac arrest right here in my shed?
I view the poor, threadlike reptile, looking infantile next to a gigantic oak leaf. There are probably worms longer than this little guy.
Nature seems raw and harsh now, but perhaps I’m the one who is. I steal swiftly into my sealed house and close the door tightly behind me. No flower beds for me today. I will enjoy their colors from behind safe window panes and stale air.
If I could send a standard apology to all the non-venomous snakes in Virginia, I would, just in case my violence was unnecessary.
It’s not personal. You’re just scarey. And I’m a wimp. But at least I’m a strong wimp.
To all those good snakes who escape the wrath of suburban housewives everywhere, we thank you for your contribution to the circle of garden life. Just don’t open your mouths at us.