For our new readers, a repost from HCD’s “Greatest Hits”:
Sometimes the bogeyman is a flashback of some rapist or the echo of that ever negative parent. It could be that childhood biting dog or one’s inner voice. Or it could be a succession of 5-foot black rat snakes coming in through windows and walls. Okay, on a day in early May of last year, it was black rat snakes.
My dogs were already barking. This was an experience they’d clearly
had before. A huge snake was outside on the window ledge, tracing a
familiar path to a missing window pane covered loosely by plastic. The
plastic was stapled in a couple of places, there to keep the rain out.
This would be a good time to mention that I have an understandable,
justifiable childhood trauma around snakes. Okay, they’re sacred and
symbolize earthiness and fertility and feminine power because we’re all
past that myth in Genesis. But this means nothing to the six-year-old
me that went crawdad huntin’ in Jack’s Creek on our farm in Kentucky.
You may be thinking I mean crayfish hunting, but since I’ll have no
dignity by the end of this story, I might as well confess now that my
sister and I were crawdad huntin’.
Granny had driven us in her Olds 98 and outfitted us with her brand
new kitchen bucket. Beth and I walked the creek, turning over rocks,
jumping back when the bigger crawdads would torpedo out. We rounded a
couple of bends, well out of sight of Granny, engrossed.
This would be a good time to mention the Paul Bunyanesque stories my
grandfather would tell about cottonmouth water moccasins. Pap claimed
that they ate his dairy cows. And with each telling of how he’d gone
out into the field and ended the behemoth with a shotgun, the snake got
bigger and bigger. On our farm, snake stories were as fishing stories
in this fashion.
So when the cartoonlike meeting of engrossed girls and startled
cottonmouth took place, there was only one way it could play
out–epically. The snake reared up and met us face to face to face. It
opened to showcase the cottony room of its mouth. We screamed in chorus
with its scream and waved our hands in the air, sending the new kitchen
bucket flying. We ran atop the surface of the water all the way back to
Granny and the Olds 98, so as not to leave any footprints in the muddy
creekbed for the snake to follow.
We told Granny about the snake and the face to face to face and the
cottony room from the safety of the car. Now I loved my grandmother and
she told me on many occasions that she loved me, too. But this was not
her shining moment. I swear to you that her only response was, “You
girls go back and get my bucket!!!”
I note for the record that she herself did not retrieve it, either.
So as the black rat snake poked at the plastic, I was amused to find
myself considering covering the pane with my own kitchen bucket.
Instead I grabbed the staple gun and began stitching a solid seem all
the way around, just barely ahead of the snake’s nose. I won that race
and darted outside only to watch the snake retreat into an opening
under my house where my tub’s drainpipe protrudes. The snake got in
I had lived in Hina Hanta, left, the Heathcote shack formerly known as the
Hillhouse, for four years. And about two or three times a year I would
come upon a small black snake inside. Now, I hate snakes for
understandable, justifiable reasons and I would evacuate with the dogs,
wait a few hours and return with another Heathcoter to conduct an “all
clear.” This worked for me, barely, because I knew the snakes were
catching mice and their bigger cousins. And for that reason I was glad
of each one I encountered outdoors. But the snake in my window had no
fear. This was new and unsettling.
I was unnerved enough to leave the light on when I went to bed. I
don’t know why I thought that would make a difference but I found it a
comfort. One of my phobias around snakes and my life deep in the woods
is that they’ll end up in bed with me. Fertility be damned, I ain’t
But two nights later the choice was not mine. I jolted up to the
crazed barks of Echo, my brave protector of the two shelties. She was
ranting and racing from the bed to the stairway of my loft room. The
sight was simply a shocker: undulating across my floor, blocking my
exit, were two five-foot long black snakes, mating, and I mean
passionately. They showed no signs of being phased by our waking.
Evacuation being my policy I stood on my bed, holding both shelties
by the collar with one hand and pulling clothes off a chair and onto
myself with the other, all the while watching the snakes go on and on
and on. I would have been struck awed and mystified by the beauty of
their fluid movements if I were another person, without my
understandable, justifiable fear of snakes. Instead I was all about
But when they finally untied themselves, the snakes were still flush
with whatever hormones were giving them boldness and drive. One started
to the right, finding the wall and turning toward my dresser, my bed
and me. The other went left to the wall and started in my direction,
using the dogs’ indoor agility tunnel to make its way toward the bed. I
yanked the tunnel away and that snake was discouraged enough to retreat
to the stairs where it disappeared into a hole in the wall. When I
looked for the right hand snake, it had lifted its head to the top of
the dresser. We split. We booked. We ran on the top of the water so as
not to leave any footprints in the muddy creekbed for the snakes to
The next day, I brought Bob, a Heathcoter, up to the house, not for
an all-clear, but to consult on plugging my many holes. As he stood in
my bedroom hearing the story a black snake emerged from a seam where
wall meets floor. It sat coiled, as if it were part of our discussion.
These snakes without fear, this was so strange and new.
Bob became my champion at community meetings–”Wren shouldn’t have to
live like this. She’s got snakes having sex on her floor!!! We’ve got
to do something!!!” That was all well and good, but now huge snakes
were slinking about at every turn I made. Kitchen, bathroom, upstairs
and down, I came to estimate that I had between 8 and 10 five-foot long
black rat snakes in my home and I was not in charge.
My friend Charles is fond of saying that the wheels of community
grind slowly. The Heathcoters were not going to disappear this
infestation in a day or even a week. In the meantime I needed a place
to sleep, alone with my dogs, alone, without snakes, alone.
Now, I had observed that black snakes don’t tend to chew holes or
dig them. They avail themselves of ones created by the critters they’re
hunting. This logic is what inspired me to set up my seven by seven
Coleman tent in place of my bed. I believed that if I kept crumbs and
such out that mice and their larger cousins would leave the fabric
intact, thus creating all the barrier I needed to get a good night’s
sleep. For the record, this is not a belief I need clarified in any
way. it works for me. If you are of the impression or experience that a
black rat snake might in fact chew through tent fabric, there is
nothing to be gained by sharing. Do not email me.
The tent became my bedroom within a bedroom. I set up a power strip
inside and plugged in my alarm clock and lamp. I inflated my aero bed
and each night I called the dogs inside and zipped us within our hiding
Enter Mr. Hacker, the snake wrangler.
Although I admit to hating snakes as bogeymen I am an animal rights
activist. In lucid moments I know that they’re just returning to their
hatching site to breed, being good snake citizens. Even so, I can
confess to having a few fantasies involving Pap’s shotgun because I
know that I ultimately stuck to my beliefs, even when they were
inconvenient. Mr. Hacker of White Hall was probably the tenth humane
pest control person I called. The others had said that snakes couldn’t
be trapped and that repellents didn’t work. Mr. Hacker had invented a
successful trap from pvc pipe and a used eel trap. Bring it on.
He installed the trap and decided to wait a while since I was so
dripping with the things. For over and hour I listened to Mr. Hacker
tell me stories of catching snakes. He would take the captured ones
many miles away. “Sometimes I just slow down and pour ‘em out the
window…” I didn’t need such details. He rambled on about family, the
cousin who actually hacked up his wife’s lover in some bar, and wasn’t
the family name ironic, I really didn’t need such details. Eventually a
snake appeared on my stairs and he picked it up with his hands. “Wow,
that’s a big one!” That’ll be thirty dollars. Here was hoping he slowed
down enough for that one.
As Hacker’s trap caught one after another and sometimes two at a
time, I got busy trimming every room and covering every possible entry,
on the shack’s interior and exterior and winning my own eel traps on
ebay. After a time the snakes stuck to the outdoors and the porch and
became shy again.
Homeschooling students attending the World Religions class on my
porch helped me name the snakes and when we were not evacuating we were
amused and amazed. And my students found my unusual bed amusing as well.
It is winter now. Whether in my walls, some woodpile or rocky
outcropping, I know the snakes are asleep. I know my holes are plugged.
These nights I just climb in, I don’t zip the door closed. But life is
a spiral of seasons, not a straight, evolutionary trajectory. I have
grown through this but I, like the snakes, know that spring happens. I
might have call to zip up yet.