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The Snake Who Came to Dinner

 
Yum, wonder where the next fish is coming from?

Their story was obviously a bold-faced lie. One boy and one babysitter do not bring a snake home because, well, uh, Mom loves animals, do they? They turned this fabrication into a real reptile soap opera, adding that "the neighborhood kids tried to kill it." If they said the dogs went after it, I might have believed them. More canines roam the hills of Appalachia than bison ever flowed over the American Great Plains.

Can one mother leave the house without two people dragging a snake inside? Not in West Virginia!

By the time I returned, the creature already resided in the empty fish tank. The boy provided a scrap of Astroturf for carpet, and the lights glowed in the lid. In any country, we call this strategy a "fait accompli." Thus, in a single two-hour period, I became the landlady of an unknown cousin of that fellow who revolutionized the Garden of Eden. I couldn't wait to see what this one would do. My new tenant kept his head low; his manner remained polite -- meaning he didn't whiplash himself into a frenzy.

No rattles sprang from his nether end, either. That absence relieved at least a little anxiety. Diamonds did not decorate his back. No broad head marked him as a copperhead -- another member of the pit vipers that find their prey by sensing body heat. Because of these two -- the noisy and the silent killers -- hiking in rock-strewn cliffs appeared nowhere on my list of recommended activities. But sure as shootin', when God goes away for an hour or two, a snake turns up!

His menu immediately demanded our attention. I shrank from bloody emergency room scenes, so a pet shop owner suggested feeder guppies. This meant that we needed to add an indoor pool to the renter's amenities. The overhead light provided essential warmth. He curled up toward it like a morning glory.

The charm of a snake began to creep up on me: He never barked, and he didn't need walking down our street -- past a golden retriever who jumped out of nowhere and a keeshond who thought our property belonged to him. What did it matter if one more critter kept us company? So many animals celebrated their existence outside our house that we already possessed our own homemade tape of nocturnal sounds. It soothed us, for the sheer absence of screaming sirens, squealing tires and space age sonics.

The snake thoroughly enjoyed his diet of little squirts that made him fish. A cereal bowl provided their necessary tank. Around this vessel he wrapped himself. At about eighteen inches, his length exceeded the circumference of his food bowl. He brought his camouflage with him too, so just another carpet scrap seemed to lie on his apartment floor. I didn't need to think about him very much -- I didn't want to think about a snake living in my house.

Nevertheless, soon he provided our after-dinner entertainment. His meal typically followed our own. The guppies slid into his cereal bowl, and he pretended not to notice. Playing his game, we affected noblesse oblige, addressing our attention to the nightly news. The MacNeil-Lehr News Hour supplied our favorite source of catastrophes. These reports came from the other side of the world -- beyond the surrounding mountains. They entertained us like Grimm's Fairy Tales. On our side of the Appalachians, we turned around -- and we found Mr. Snake ogling the news with us.

We giggled over this sudden interest -- unless, all along, he snuck peaks through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Goodness knows, we never conducted a security sweep of the property before turning in. Outside, perhaps all the animals just waited for The Tonight Show to begin. MacNeil-Lehr, though, turned our Mr. Snake into a real news-hound. He rested his chin -- or whatever a smooth-faced slicker possesses in place of one -- on his cereal bowl. Then, he pointed his head straight at the television. If his anatomy included a hand, he would have cupped it to his face and stared. So together, our extended family managed to be well informed, even on the edge of the world.

By the time foreign affairs coverage returned from Bangkok, six fewer guppies did laps in the swimming pool. Mr. Snake started out, every time, with an even dozen. At first, we never saw them exit. They just evaporated. Their remains never showed up slip-sliding around in the Astroturf. Mr. Snake remained absorbed in foreign affairs. We excelled at observing everything except what happened in our midst. The news crews' cameras functioned as our eyes until we decided to take them back.

Eventually, fishing excited him so much that he didn't care if we shared his expeditions. The fish, after all, traveled to him -- and they suffered no hope of escape. So our entire family gathered to enjoy his extraordinary casting and trolling.

The first fish he caught behaved like the new kid at the country club, showing off his athletic skills. After one snap of that lightening head, the others performed Olympic quality swan dives and triple somersaults. He poked and jabbed, aiming to snatch them from mid-air. Alternatively, he shot like an arrow into the water before they could leap free of his mouth again. With his body wrapped around the bowl, he created a magic circle. His spine curled or snapped on demand, adjusting for angle, and became the most flexible fishing rod ever invented. He thought of this device himself, I guess, for he brought it with him.

We lived happily ever after for at least three months. News-hounds all, we always began with MacNeil-Lehr and always ended with Mr. Snake. He sloughed off his old coat after already growing a new one. At self-sufficiency, he excelled. We traded TV time for fishing lessons. At last, we agreed that he had served his time -- and better than many men. He slipped into the fall like another black blade of grass.

So who can wonder, really, that his ancestor turned up in the Garden of Eden? There, he outsmarted Adam and Eve, who did not yet possess a television. He found that girl while the boy went fishing, and he said: "I will make you a fisher of men." She set down her trowel and listened.

The CEO of Paradise Development did not like such cunning: He punished the snake severely for his most celebrated attribute. The powers-that-be in the Middle Ages did not approve of it, either, for it always left them not knowing what to expect. Yet without it, not a single animal would survive the machinations of his kin or men. The latter, in particular, prefer to think in straight lines -- or, "inside the box," as we now say.

As we watch a snake, though, we can see how he proceeds -- first one way and then back. In the end, he arrives at his goal even if he must travel crosswise. He mastered the genius of the alternating curve, and his enemies never forgave him. Yet our Mr. Snake could charm even straight-jacketed executives with his fishing. Let him star in his own show, I suggest. See how long MacNeil-Lehr lasts after that.

Such thoughts never slithered into my mind before we befriended our talented serpent in West Virginia, America's own Garden of Eden. Emily Dickinson, of course, didn't like this guy either. Too bad for her, since Hemingway eulogized fishing every chance he got. Out there on the water, Mr. Snake ripples like just another wave flashing in the lake on a sun-blessed day. Only silly little fish need fear him -- and people who forget to check their swimming pools regularly for visitors. This guy knows a good thing every time he sees it -- unlike some among humankind.

To identify reptilian mystery guests in your environment, you can check out eNature.com. Their Species Finder offers "Nature and Wildlife Field Guides" with snakes in colors that Paul Gauguin would envy. The Center for North American Herpetology also provides an online "Academic Portal to North American Herpetology." Book lovers can luxuriate in 277 Secrets Your Snake Wants You to Know by Chris Mattison; The General Care and Maintenance of Common King Snakes (The Herpetocultural Library) by David Perlowin; and Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature by Harry W. Greene, Michael Fogden and Patricia Fogden.

This array may not represent the usual beach book fare, but who can resist a conversation on a snake that climbs a tree, instead of hiding in a hole underneath it? Children, too, often find these creatures mesmerizing. They may even succumb to sprawling for hours over pictures and words that frighten the daylights out of everyone except the innocent. Perhaps they see nature, truly, with the expert eye of the eagle -- as close as their dreams and as far away as adults can keep them.

Meg Curtis