We met a snake on Thursday. It was me, Pema, Ada and Francis. I’m thirty-six years old. Pema is four and a half, Ada is three and half, and Francis is two. I don’t know how old the snake is, but it was big. “I would guess one hundred,” Ada said with her typical giant mouth smile. “One hundred what?” I asked. Laughter. “Silly Joe Joe.”
It was a bull snake, sometimes called a gopher snake or rat snake. It’s harmless, but beautiful. Black and gold patterns all along its sinuous back. One giant articulation of muscle. We had just returned from an outing with Silke and her forest kindergarten - Pema, Ada and me. Francis caught a glimpse of us as we walked past the kitchen, excited, as usual, to see us. The girls and I headed round the outside, while Francis shouted to his mother that we were home.
As we turned another corner, headed toward the mud pit, we crossed a small landing of brick pavers next to the western sun room. Pema and Ada walked right past the snake, lost in each other. I might have walked past too, but my peripheral vision brought my attention to something out of place. “Holy shit!” I might have said. But I probably didn’t. Instead I yelled for the girls, “Pema! Ada! Come here! Pema, Pema! Ada! Right now. Come here, come here! Look at this snake!” I was determined to win their attention.
“Look, look,” I said, when they had both returned. The snake, pinned against the corner of the wall, was about three and a half feet long, as thick as a banana. Immediately, the girls went into a squat position and got close. I hovered behind. Black and gold ran along the snake's back, surrounded by the red brick floor and earthy brown stucco wall. Its tongue flicked, and I guessed it was a little frightened. I was surprised not to see it dart away, but it may have felt trapped. There was no immediate thicket of grass or shrubs to shrink into. It was perfectly exposed, and that’s largely why we found it so fascinating. In the near distance I saw our two male turkeys, taking notice of the commotion. Every business is their business. That snake is coiling with fear, I thought. Its black, forked tongue flicked out every half second, but its body still sat largely unmoved.
“Can we touch it?” Pema asked. “Yeah, gently,” I said, “but be nice to it.” Both girls rubbed along its scales with one finger. Slight, cautious adjustments cascaded through the snake’s spine, ever so slight. It continued to stay rather still. The turkeys were approaching, but hadn’t yet begun their odd guttural noises and quick steps that betray excitement and bravado. The girls seemed to have had enough, so we headed back for the mud pit. “Good,” I thought, “before the turkeys get involved.”
At the mud pit, we met Francis. I told him about the snake and invited him to follow me. He and I went back around the corner to the brick landing, and the girls followed. Now all three crouched down, within two feet of the snake and its constantly flicking tongue. The turkeys still held their distance. Slow, incremental movements were visible along the snake’s spine. But it wasn’t going anywhere.
“Touch it. Touch it,” Pema said, emboldened by her new role as elder, “You can touch it Francis,” She held out her hand to show him, giving the snake a more casual, and gruff, caress. Ada poked the snake again, also emboldened. All along its spine the snake began to move more forcefully, holding its muscles tighter, but still it kept its ground. It wasn't moving, as in traveling. It was adjusting, compressing, crouching. Smelling. The long thin line of its body was now in modest curves. Francis had had enough and ran off. Pema, now almost reckless, poked the snake once or twice more, as if it were a stick or plaything. Suddenly, the tip of the snake’s tail began to vibrate very fast, raising a scuffling sound as it rattled against a dry leaf. It was nervous, no question. Okay, I thought, time to get out of here and let it find its way to safety.
But by now, it was as if the muscles in the snake were all waking, tensing, aligning for some grand purpose, and I could see the power of its singular musculature. I am, after all, quite aware of my own. "This animal," I thought, "is coming alive. Its relaxed tension is coming to full poise." Pema gave one last good poke, and the snake, which had already twisted into a coursing-river shape, became enraged, not only with the full power of its muscles, no doubt, but the same sort of chemical wash that occurs in my own body as I get tense or fearful or manic. Its head reared up off the ground, its whole body contracting with a muscular power that only seconds ago was hidden in torpor. Its entire body length flexed, its tail vibrating frenetically, and two massive coils of switchbacks in its neck allowed this previously docile animal to raise its head a foot or more off the ground. It faced off squarely at us, and emitted a “hesshsshsshsshssh” that shocked me.
I was stunned. I had never seen a snake do this. Not in real life. Pema and Ada were obviously both stunned too. They had stood up, thank goodness, but were still watching as if hypnotized - their faces only a foot or two from the snake’s hissing mouth. The sound reverberated in our ears, nothing like the Sss-sound most of us learn to associate with snakes. The power of hundreds of coiling muscles squeezed every ounce of fluid air out of that snake’s body and hurled it at us - hhhheehhhh - from the depths of its throat. My sympathetic neurons fired. I could feel the air coiling through my own throat and escaping with the rough scratch of an H with clenched teeth. That was the feeling. That was the sound.
I came to my senses. “Pema! Ada! Move! Move! Go! Get away! Right now! Right now!” I knew the snake wasn’t poisonous, but it appeared as if it might lunge at any second. A bite was still surely painful, and I feared it would be a traumatic event. Things so rarely rear up and bite us. And I still had compassion for the snake, who after all was just trying to keep safe. It’s one thing to observe these beautiful creatures. Another thing to scare them out of their minds.
The girls finally tore off in a fearful mix of hilarity and screams, around the corner, another corner, to the mud pit, past the apricot tree, and spilled through the kitchen door, spewing screams and half-cocked phrases like addled birds to the adults inside. As they did, I backed away and walked after them, the chemical tension in my lungs and muscles relaxing into full-grown laughter.
All this happened within seconds.