My nemesis/totem, the black rat snake, has arrived back at Heathcote on schedule this spring. This has me tenting again this year, since our project of jacking up my house created some gaps where snakes might again access my living space. Time to recall the famous story, reposted below. Click on photos for details. —WT

Spring, 2006

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 anyway.

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 having that!

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 escape.

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 follow.

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 place.

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.

–Wren Tuatha

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