At last summer’s Renaissance Festival, an appealing young man talked me into taking off my shoe after asking me to sit with him on a fragrant bed of pine needles near the Shakespeare stage. He seemed to be one of the actors or artisans who worked there. He gazed deeply into my eyes and said he wanted to read my sole. That was his thing, apparently, like fortune tellers read palms. Only I heard “soul,” and off came the shoe.
There was nothing like this at yesterday’s fall festival, but there were other attractions. We rode in a hay wagon dodging honeybees, ate funnel cake, and listened to an informed and entertaining reptile expert’s presentation on cobras, anacondas, milk snakes and alligators—all of which he held in his hands to the squeamish delight of rapt spectators.
Did you know that only venomous snakes have fangs? The others just have tiny teeth—he claims they feel like kittens when they bite. He says when a snake’s tongue strikes you, it tickles. He weaves slowly back and forth like a snake himself as he speaks. He’s about 60 with a dark beard and receding hairline. He’s wearing cargo shorts that are a little too short, clunky boots, and a collared shirt with a navy sweater. A little like an American Steve Irwin. With loving tenderness, he pushes up his sleeves and allows various reptiles to coil around his arms. We watch from a safe distance on haybales.
His snakes have names. And relationships. The brilliantly orange-and-yellow-banded milk snake is “Lipstick.” She is remarkably beautiful. Twelve-inch coral bands are separated by yellow and black bands about two inches wide. Her offspring is “Mini Lipstick,” and her tiny granddaughter is “Chapstick.”
Chapstick was so small when she was born, she could curl in a bottlecap. Apparently, that was not appalling. He recounts watching an anaconda eat a goat. The crowd leans in, horrified and attracted in spite of themselves, like involuntarily slowing at the scene of an accident. He’s a fan of all things reptile and eager to share the love.
So. I’ll just say it.
I’ve killed an inordinate number of snakes in my life, and now I feel bad about it.
When my sisters and I were little, we routinely killed water snakes as they swam out of the marsh for the river. Mindlessly. Just because they were snakes. Our means of destruction? Oars. Our parents probably didn’t know about it, but our father told us that if one of us was bitten by a snake, her companion should cut the bite with a knife and suck out the venom.
Prepare to die, I thought, looking at my sister’s leg.
I feel terrible about this senselessness now, not just because of the snake man. These days, I open windows in January to let spiders out, carry centipedes out of the basement, ferry flies down three flights of stairs to the front door, never ever kill a bee.
The reptile man tests his audience. “What am I going to do if I see a snake?” he asks the children in the crowd. I’m thinking, “kill it” is not the answer Lipstick’s dad is looking for. The enlightened little soul next to me yells, “Walk away!”
Our expert continues educating us. He says rattlesnakes don’t make nests, but I’m here to tell you there are snakes that do, and that there is a good reason that a collection of snakes, like a “herd” of cows,” is called a “slither.”
I was home alone with my 18-month-old daughter Emily, preparing some spring garden beds while she staggered around the yard as toddlers do, picking up interesting things to put in her mouth.
We had had a dead wild cherry tree taken out the year before, and the landscaper had left an enormous mulch pile between the shed, built in the far back corner of the yard, and the fence enclosing it. The mulch mountain created a wall that only an intrepid toddler would climb over to become trapped in the ten feet between the shed’s back wall and the boundary fence.
Emily, pink cheeks and jacket, bulky diaper under a knit dress, was squatting on the far side of the pile, examining something in it when the mulch started to undulate. Startled, I grabbed my shovel to investigate and unearthed a snake about a foot long that had been warming itself in there. My baby was feet away and ignoring instructions not to move. So, I instinctively killed it.
But before I could climb the pile and grab Emily, another snake poked its flat triangular head out. Then another, and another. For the next half hour, locked in place, I intercepted snakes as they slithered out of the mulch. Every time I thought it was safe to grab the baby, another snake was sidewinding towards her or the back porch. It was as if a switch had flipped, and I was on mother autopilot, acting without reasoning. By the time I could cross the mulch pile to sweep up Emily, I was crying for all of us.
We left the reptile man’s presentation when the cobra he was unveiling fanned its hood and took several strikes at him. There was a band playing “Brown Eyed Girl” over by the corn maze. We drifted over there.
Over the years, I’ve ended the life of a lot of creatures, but (hand up, please call on me) I’ve saved a lot as well. Daddy Longlegs I found in my pajama top on a camping trip. Wasps where I could just release the screen. A flying squirrel. A baby robin.
If my soul is ever read, which I imagine is inevitable (and I worry wonder about), I hope the record shows that I’m really sorry. One optimistic friend says they’re in a better place. They’ve “gone into the light.” I’d like to think we all are going into the light, but I doubt any of us want to be dispensed there.
What does it take to exchange fear for empathy? A snake named Lipstick is a start. But I think the empathy I’ve been unable to evoke is for myself. It’s just really hard to forgive myself for hurting the innocent.
I suspect this is bigger than snakes.
I take my regret and offer it up—Sorry, snakes. Sorry bugs. Sorry friends, sorry my kids, my relatives.
Let the record show I did the best I could with who I was, and if I could be 8 years old again, playing in the stream at dusk when the water snakes made a run for the river, I’d bless them all and let them go.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.