Photo: (c) Jamie K. Reaser
My parents decapitated every snake
they saw. I remember watching severed
heads and severed bodies writhing,
in the grass. The mouth would open and
close, open and close. It was pink inside.
When I was old enough to read field guides,
my parents got in trouble. Big trouble.
According to the books, there were no
venomous snakes where we lived. None.
Every single species was harmless. Actually,
they did good things.
I was not happy.
I laid down the law. “You aren’t allowed to
kill any more snakes!” My declaration was
non-negotiable and backed by facts. Plenty.
That was the day that I learned to stop
trusting everything adults said and did.
The next snake that I encountered was
a garter snake – a large female. I reached
down and picked her up, gently placing the
fingers of my right hand behind her narrow
head and supporting her sleek body with
my left hand, just like the books said to do.
Then, I went to find my parents.
I was told that ‘it’ was not coming into the
house. Ever. But, I was given a playpen-sized
box that an appliance had arrived in earlier
The snake and I spent most of that day
on the back patio in that box with grass
that I pulled and worms that I caught.
She ate a big one. It was still wriggling
when it disappeared into the universe
I learned a lot about snakes that day,
like how easy they are to love.
I let her go.
And, the next day, I went down to the
brook that ran patiently behind the house
– Harrison Brook –
where I knew northern watersnakes
lived in holes at the top of clay banks.
I waded in waist deep, causing water
to separate at my left hip and embrace
me before flowing onward, and waited for
them to swim by – going to or from their
streamside apartments. When they came
my way, swimming, I’d put my hands in the
water under their long undulating bellies
and gently lift them up. Then, I’d get
bitten. It never hurt much, but it did
draw blood. Sometimes.
I did this again and again, until they
trusted my particular touch. Then, I’d sit
with one or two on the sandy shoal at
the turn in the creek and just look at them
and talk to them. I think they said things
to me too, but I don’t remember
All demons can be befriended this way.
The snake in my hand, right now, is a lovely
ringneck, steel gray with a golden belly and
collar. She’s silky smooth and elegant,
looped around my thumb and forefinger.
I relate to scales in much the same way that
religious people relate to beads. Holding her
is an act of prayer. But, what is the
prayer? This is my question. I think that it is
a good one.
I think, perhaps, I’m still praying for those
decapitated snakes. Or, maybe, I’m praying
for people. Decades have passed. I’m still
clear about who is harmless. But, it seems,
much of the world is not.
© 2015/Jamie K. Reaser
From "Wonderment: New and Selected Poems"
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