Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Snakes

I don't like spiders and snakes
And that ain't what it takes to love me
You fool, you foolI don't like spiders and snakes
And that ain't what it takes to love me
Like I wanna be loved by you

--Jim Stafford, fellow Polk County son

One of my students was recently bitten by a rattlesnake. As desert dwellers, we know they are out there, but everyone always assures that actually being bitten is quite rare. Still, in the past three years, two people I know have been struck, both at night. The notion of it brings up my own tremulous feelings toward venomous snakes, a class of creatures fairly prolific where I grew up in rural Central Florida, or at least in my perception of the place. They became and remain a bit of a preoccupation for me. (Phobia?) They manifest with disturbing regularity in my dreams: everywhere then, ubiquitous, much so that to step a toe to the open ground is an imminent danger, or attacking directly sometimes, forcing me to grab one at the “neck” (the safest place I reason) to avoid the bite, but then I feel the contracting of the muscles, the head inching out of my grasp with gradual determination until it has enough room to turn back and strike.

In the real world I’ve had a few close calls. Three of them are burned in my memory in all of their serpentine terror.

1. Jogging barefoot through the woods on a trail behind my house, early autumn, the summer heat breaking into a crisp, wistful chill and I am suddenly upon a Florida rattler, stopping short, my toes maybe six inches from its long body, elongated, lethargically crossing the trail, me turning and chest racing as I sprint my way back home.

2. Sitting in the shallows of Lake Aurora, just behind my Grandparents house, alone, just having cracked open a fresh-water mussel and watching the minnows tear away at the pinkish meat, alone in my thoughts, until I look down and—I swear—one millimeter from my big toe is the enormous head of a cottonmouth water moccasin. How I sprang away from its hungry fangs is still beyond me.

3. Tubing down the river at Ichetucknee Springs with my church youth group, the water so cold—too cold—and me not finding any way to keep my body out of it, this cold water, deciding then to walk along the shore, tube hiked over shoulder, until the shore disappeared and forced me to make my way up an incline of woods where I could cross behind a pine tree and descend back to the shore again. My hand braced against the pine and one foot raised, ready to plant it down on …another rattlesnake, a pygmy I think, coiled there in the nether recess, waiting. Me, lunging away, my bare feet bruised against rocks and tree roots, a pointy stick, tube flying in the air and me diving toward the river and landing hard in the shallows just beyond the bank.

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