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Getting to know the neighbors

| 28 Jun 2022 | 10:42

Some people fear spiders, others, heights. My thing is snakes. Snakes of all sizes make me gasp and tap dance, but to state the obvious, the bigger, the scarier.

It’s embarrassing, a dead giveaway that I grew up a coddled suburbanite. I don’t talk much about it. Except all of a sudden, they’re coming out.

We knew they were around. Snakeskins wave like ominous pennants all winter from bare tree branches that seem impossible to reach from the ground – but clearly aren’t. In the kids’ “Lorax stump,” we kept digging up leathery off-white balls that I finally realized were a clutch of snake eggs, hopefully old ones.

In nearly two years, though, we’ve rarely spotted the snakes themselves, which is remarkable given that one about as long as a human adult appears to live in a cavity in the maple from which the kids’ three swings hang. (Needless to say, no one has done much swinging since this discovery.)

Recently, though, they’ve gotten less demure. Or else they’ve had a baby boom.

First, there was the one sunbathing under a mess of kids’ bikes. My three-year-old was rushing to grab his balance bike when it dawned on me what that black thing was – not a pry bar, not a branch. The scene is etched into my mind: my six-year-old, blithely pedaling along the dirt road inches from an interminably long serpent. Scooping up the little guy, I stifled the urge to yell and instead commanded his sister in a Darth Vader voice: “Keep. Going. Keep. Going.” A scream might have stopped her in her tracks right next to the snake, and might have startled the snake into, I don’t know, sinking its fangs into her bare little leg. We took an extended ride, to cool our heels and give the snake time to clear out. It was gone by the time we got back, but still we stuck to our game plan: a wide, speedy, adrenaline-soaked arc around the spot where it had been.

I know I’m probably doing the kids a disservice with my histrionics, perpetuating a generational inanity. I try to imagine what my next-door neighbor would do, probably hoist his little girl onto his shoulders and go check it out with a long stick? “Great snakes for small critter control,” this neighbor informed us when husband Joe texted him a picture. A black racer, he said, a name that gives me hives. “Unfortunately they do have an attitude problem and will go after you. They are not poisonous but the bite hurts like hell and will cause infection.”

Sell. Sell the house.

Then there was the pair twining around one another on a branch of the swing tree, in a mesmerizing day-long embrace, which Joe actually called me at work to describe – something he rarely does, not even that time our youngest cut open his forehead on a piece of sheet metal.

One of the paramours was clearly the same snake I’d encountered that morning, blockading the driveway as I was trying to leave for work. The guy snake, I imagined, on his way to meet his girl in the tree. I was half tempted to drive right over it – but no. No.

They were here before us. They have every right to be here. They are providing all sorts of unseen services: eating the mice that get into our house and car; the chipmunks that eat my strawberries and carry ticks. It’s the best thing in the world for an ecosystem to have apex predators around – though racers aren’t even apex predators, the internet informs me, but mid-level, preyed on by higher-ups like the coyotes we hear yipping at night. That you live someplace that can support terrifying carnivores means you’ve made it! You know you’d rather have these guys for neighbors than humans. So my logical brain tells my primitive one.

Instead of gunning it that morning, I backed the Prius up to the house, called the kids out to the porch to witness this phenomenon, lacking only David Attenborough’s narration.

Then there was the pair – please let it be the same pair – in the grass of the fenced inner sanctum, sigh, where we run around barefoot. We like to fool ourselves into thinking a few feet of chicken-wire will keep out wild animals of this, well, stature. But having seen these gangly constrictors slither straight up branchless tree trunks, it’s almost amusing to recall our naiveté. The real test of our pluck, though, came the day we nearly tripped over a mass of black shimmering scales on our back doorstep, then half an hour after Joe shooed it away, discovered yet another snake – or was it the same one? – tasting the air at our front door, which was, as usual, ajar.

So here we are, adjusting to the idea of sizeable, quick-moving serpents coiled in the crotches of the idyllic old trees surrounding our little stone house. All this time, they’ve kept out of our way, I remind myself. And really they are not so enormous. The internet further informs me that an adult racer weighs – wait for it – one pound, maybe one and a quarter. And as I pick the first of my strawberries – red and perfectly whole, with nary a chipmunk nibble – I think I know who to thank.