|Sometimes I hesitate to speak of my past, because I’m afraid people will think I’m lying. When I was small, Daddy took me out to the shed, but not for what you’d expect. He said he wanted to show me something. First, he warned me not to scream. Daddy had no patience with children who screamed. We peered in the doorway, and there was a great big black snake curled up and around on the rough wall. I screamed. I was immediately ashamed and never did that again.
In addition to that shaky introduction which sealed my resolve to face snakes like a man even if I was a girl, my big brother was a famous snake handler. Well, not famous, and not in the religious way. He liked animals of all sorts and did not discriminate against one sort just because they claimed an ancestor who made a deal with the devil. I watched my brother handle snakes and learned there was no reason to be unreasonably afraid. I went on to kill a lot of snakes and let more live, depending on how far it was to the nearest hoe and if they looked to be harmless or not. They were common out there on the ranch, and it was not unusual to see a big black snake wrapped in and around two or three levels of the recessed mortar in the bricks on the carport wall. I remember one in particular that stayed in that position for the longest time without moving; in fact, it never moved until I gave up watching. Nonetheless, in all those years, we never saw one in the house.
Many years later after my mother had passed on, my sister Connie and I met back there for a visit with Daddy, who was then in his early nineties. He had not changed much; he was still short on patience. He went to bed early, and Connie and I sat up late before she also went to bed.
I read until around midnight and then went to take a bath, carrying my suitcase into the bathroom with me. After I got out of the tub I picked up the suitcase, and a copperhead slithered out from under it.
Now it was not the long, thick full grown snake you might at first picture. It was younger and smallera teenagerand that was a good thing for me. I was not even certain it was a copperhead but determined it most likely was and went with that. The next question was whether or not to wake anyone up. Daddy was very old and asleep and still short on patience. Waking Connie was out of the question, because she had somehow missed out completely on the snake lessons. So I looked around for a weapon.
There was a faded old yard stick propped up in a corner. That was all. If I went looking for a weapon, he might be gone when I got back (I call the snake a “he” without an agenda). So I thought to put him into the then-empty tub until I returned, using the yard stick to lift him up and in. It was more difficult than expected, as he raced around the room and raised up to strike more than once.
I finally managed to get the stick under him and flipped him in, having the presence of mind to have stopped up the drain first. Even then I was not sure he could not climb out. I stood my suitcase on end up on a chair in front of the tub, hoping he might think it was somebody watching him, and went out. I passed up the gun cabinet, not wanting to shoot up the tub or disturb anyone. The back porch usually had tools, but that night the only thing I could find was a hatchet. There was nothing at all with a longer handle, so back to the bathroom I went with it.
He was still in the tub. When he saw me he reared up a third of his body in a strike. I don’t know if he had been doing that to the suitcase or not. There was no way I was going to be able to chop him with that short handle. No snake had ever striked at me before, but then no snake had ever cornered me within four walls before. I was used to chopping the heads off flat ones with a long handled hoe. Then I saw that old yard stick again and got an idea. I waved it around in front of him with my left hand and got his attention turned in one direction while I positioned the hatchet with my right hand and chopped his head off. The old bathtub was no worse for the wear. I put the body in a bag and left it on top of the washing machine on the back porch and went to bed.
The next morning at breakfast I said, “I killed a roach in the kitchen last night.” Actually I said, “I killed a snake in the bathtub last night,” but just as calmly.
My decision for not waking Connie was reinforced by her reaction. She didn’t scream, but she gasped and turned pale. It was Daddy’s reaction that is worth noting. He did not even stop chewing. He asked, “What kind was it?”
Now we had never had a snake of any kind inside the house before, and I was still wrapped up with that novelty and not a little bit proud of my midnight feat, but I could see there was no glory coming. Just a half interested demand on my snake identification skills.
I said I believed it was a copperhead. We finished breakfast. I did ask if they wanted to see it, but no one seemed interested even in that. Did I mention we are taciturn people?
Not to let it rest completely, I put the bagged body in my trunk and took it home to Tennessee, where my husband confirmed it was indeed a copperhead. Further research told me that young ones can be more venomous than adults, which gave me a bit of satisfaction that the whole thing was not so trivial.
Nevertheless, the next time I hope to encounter a ghost and get a little more story out of it.
Charlton Walters Hillis has a fine arts degree, but her first love is creative writing, primarily the short story. She has a nonfiction work in progress of an art buyer in the Voronezh region of Russia.