Wrestling the Chimera

by Cindy Carlson

I was in a hurry the morning I rounded the corner of the garage and caught a glimpse of a black rat snake wrapped around the base of a giant hosta, partially obscured by its elephant-ear leaves.

“Whoa,” I whispered, sucking in a quick startle reflex. Snakes are as common in our yard as deer and ticks, but it’s still unnerving to encounter one. I lunged forward with my best step-over-a-crack-in-the-sidewalk stride and kept going. The first hurricane of the season was churning its way up the coast and one storm model had it brushing close enough to home that I wanted to finish my errands quickly.

Twenty years ago my husband, Rich, and I bought three acres of Chesapeake Bay salt marsh, dreaming of a place to retire close to nature. Like the winds and the tides, wildlife came with the property. When hurricane flooding strands pencil-thin baby copperheads in the garage, or my pitchfork stabs the jellybean eggs that racers deposited in the mulch pile, or the red fox ambles across the driveway on my trek to the mailbox, I’m reminded of the entente we’ve declared with these creatures that share our land.

The largest black rat snake, papa we assume, sometimes stretches his six-foot sinewy frame along the back side of the three-foot HV/AC unit, head and tail draped nonchalantly off either end of the platform, in a half-hearted attempt to create a hiding place. The one we call mama is fond of the podacarpus next to the front steps; I’ve flinched in surprise to see her lounging across its branches like an over-stuffed garden hose we had tossed over the bush and forgotten. Young snakes, no larger around than Rich’s thumb, might appear anywhere. Some mornings their shed skins dangle off the shrubbery like Christmas tinsel, softly flapping in the breeze. Once Rich filled a three-gallon plastic bucket with dried snake skins after the termite inspector refused to go under the house until we cleaned them up.

I’ve trained my peripheral vision. I step carefully. And I don’t venture under the house.

The snake was still there that evening.

“I think mama black snake has decided to ride out the storm under the hosta,” I said to Rich.

“I guess that’s as good a place as any,” he said. “She’ll be gone in the morning.”

The weather alerts on our cell phones yelped around 1:00 a.m.—an ungodly alarm that sent us scrambling up from the depths of REM and stumbling to the den where a tornado warning scrolled across the TV screen. The threat never materialized, but the adrenaline rush persisted long after I returned to bed. I fidgeted and flopped, then suddenly realized I was thinking about the snake. The thought of her filled the room—a shadowy, unsubstantial presence, more disturbing than menacing.

I squirmed, uneasy. Darkness narrowed the distance between the side of the garage and my bed, between me and a sleeping snake. Then I remembered the netting draped over the hosta.

“Oh shit,” I whispered. “She must be caught. And I bet she’s dying.”

Each summer I cover our hosta with a thin netting to deter the deer, never imagining a threat to a snake. The plastic threads form half-inch squares; they don’t stretch or snap, and they must be cut with a blade. No creature wider than an inch could push through the netting, but snakes could slip under it and move freely among the plants.

Except this one didn’t. When the storm passed the following afternoon, mama snake still lay wound around the hosta. Only now we saw her predicament. Somehow she had burrowed into the netting—a jumble of it piled around her like a nest—and her twists and turns had tangled it. Like a Chinese finger trap, the more she struggled, the more it strangled her.

Rich and I stared at the shambles.

“Will she bite you?” I asked, knowing it had to be him, not me, who attempted to free her.

“Of course she will. She just won’t kill me.”

I paced the sidewalk, trying to avoid a glance at her slowly pulsing body. I felt queasy.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle it,” Rich said. He had that edge in his voice, a clue for me to back off and let him figure out the situation. He needed time.

Waiting seemed cruel, but I’ve seen black snakes stuck, both ways, in the woodpecker holes of the dead black gum trees in our woods. Some climb the trunk and peek in, feast on whatever eggs or babies can be found, and then can’t back out. Or one will stick his head out of a hole for days waiting for digestion to shrink his swollen body back to exit size.

In those cases Rich and I don’t intervene in the snake-eat-bird world of the salt marsh. But what if the threat is of our own doing? What if my own gardening decisions endanger an animal in whose territory we’ve built our house? How does the natural-order karma work when we’ve tipped the scales in our favor? Whom do we choose to rescue?

Many years ago we traveled to Arizona with our friend Bob, one of the foremost birders in the country. We were driving through the desert, scenery hurtling past the windows of the van, when he suddenly yanked the wheel toward the side of the road, slammed the brakes and jumped a ditch to a barbed-wire fence where a barn owl flailed. With no hint of fear Bob grabbed the struggling bird and, as its impressive talons gripped deeper into the back of his hand, gently freed the wings. The bird calmed, posed regally for pictures on Bob’s blood-stained arm, then swooped across the field to his freedom like a giant white moth.

It was mostly instinct, born from that experience, that prompted Rich to slam on the brakes some ten years later as our family sped across the Montana prairie. He leaped from the car, racing across a field toward a flock of long-billed curlews diving and screaming around a single bird that dangled by one long leg from a barbed-wire fence. Jenn, who shares her father’s gutsy impulses, beat him to the bird, and by the time her new (and somewhat bewildered) husband and I reached them, Jenn had wrestled the large cinnamon shorebird into submission while her dad gingerly struggled with its leg. As the frantic curlews dive-bombed Rich’s head, furiously clacking their long sickle bills, I watched him silently calculate whether or not to break the delicate limb. He scanned his daughter’s face, then strained at the tangle of barbed wire, sweat dripping from his forehead until, with a great twist and squawk, the bird jerked free. For one freeze-frame second it hesitated, then circled upwards, merging into the entire flock as it disappeared into the clouds.

I could tell the next morning that Rich was debating whether he would have to kill the snake. I busied myself in the iris bed while he dragged his moral dilemma out to the hostas to assess the status. Within a few minutes he called out.

“A little help over here,” he said, barely loud enough for me to hear. I dropped my weeding tool and ran, then stopped short where he faced me. One gloved hand signaled to approach cautiously, the other clutched a pair of scissors and a mass of netting. A yard-or-more of black snake coiled up his arm.

“I need you to start cutting at the tail end,” he said, glancing at his shoulder.

In hushed, measured tones, he directed me to snip as her taut muscles gradually uncoiled. I shuddered each time the cool blade of the scissors slid along the bluish-black scales, smooth and glistening in the sunlight. We bent over our work, hearts thumping, crouching nearer and nearer to the ground. Her body squirmed close to my chest—her essence feral and musty, her fear tangled with our heartbeats.

I have played with a Chinese finger trap and find it frightening. I know the secret is to relax. Yet I struggle against its grip, frantic in the illusion that I am somehow in charge of the outcome. For years, I’ve held the same bizarre notion about life—in my job, my travels, my family. Gradually, with age, I’m learning to loosen my chokehold on results, to live counter-intuitively.

Once we almost gave up this plot of land at the mouth of the Bay because I longed to live on an island in the Pacific Northwest. For two years I struggled, desperate to fit the round peg of our lives into the oddly-shaped hole of another world. I raged against realtors, the economy, and even St. Joseph, who’d been planted upside-down in the front yard but failed to bring a buyer for our house. I burrowed deeper and deeper down my one-way trajectory, wrestling the chimera, reaching dead ends until I collided with the realization that the move wasn’t going to happen.

At that moment, relinquishing the illusion of control, surrender was almost sweet. I stretched and flexed into my familiar space. With new eyes I looked at our land. At the living things who share it. I saw myself belonging here.

We were kneeling, close to the ground. Netting fragments gathered into a small tumbleweed at our feet. We reached the snake’s head. About an inch of netting remained, tight around her jaw. Once I snipped, she would be free to snap at whatever was within her reach. Rich grabbed the neck and pressed it between his thumb and forefinger. Her head dropped.

“She knows we’re trying to save her,” he whispered. I believed him.

“Let go,” I whispered to the snake. Then I snipped.

The snake slid across the driveway straight for a trough on the other side. She stretched to her full length and paused. Then she was gone.

Cindy Carlson grew up in the snow belt region of western New York, but has spent most of her adult life along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. After a long career in the youth development field where she published in numerous professional journals, she has turned, in her retirement, to her first love of creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Birding and damselfly press.