It’s around 5:30 am on a Saturday at our ranch in southeast Texas, and I toss and turn in bed. I’m desperate to capitalize on the rare treat of sleeping late, but instead, I’m wide awake, worrying about my husband, children and our dog, Karma. They’re teal hunting, which requires wading through the water in the pitch-black darkness to set out the decoys. It’s hot outside, and our place is smack in the middle of rice field country, with lots of irrigation canals. We even have alligators, but it’s the water moccasins that keep me up.
The first time I went duck hunting here, I saw the body of a water moccasin rise up out of the water like the Loch Ness monster. A big black tubular shape, much like the tire of a mountain bike, arched out of the surface and then slipped beneath it again. It was less than a foot away from me as I sat with my friends in a sunken blind that was the same level as the flooded field. We all simultaneously jumped out of the blind and stood on its roof. One of us made a futile attempt to scare it up by tossing a stick in the water, but the snake was long gone. It could be anywhere.
I happened upon my snake phobia one Easter morning in the ’70s, deep in the prickly-peared pastures of Jim Hogg County, Texas. As soon as we woke up, my sister and I raced to our baskets, ready for the hunt. We stood at the backdoor of our ranch house, waiting for our parents to give us the thumbs up.
Outside, a colorful spray of flowers spotted the yard like confetti. At my grandparents’ ranch, the Palangana, near Hebbronville, the south Texas wildflowers came in Easter themed colors—paper-thin white petals of thistle; dainty yellow flowers with brown stamens that made them look like sombreros, magenta flowers with the camote root that Native Americans used to forage.
We were stalled by my mother, who had to check the yard. My brown-eyed, olive skinned father, who had grown up on the ranch, could kill snakes with a stick, but our delicate, porcelain-skinned mother was a city girl who never mastered south Texas’ trifecta of tortures: poisonous snakes, deadly spiders and painful thorns. She checked our beds at night before we crawled into them and she examined every inch of the tile floor for scorpions.
Outside, our mother discovered that while Christ has risen, several rattlesnakes were busy engulfing our Easter eggs. The snakes must have smelled the eggs’ sulphurous odor; I wondered if there was a visible line of ovoid lumps along the length of their bodies, but I never got close enough to see. Instead, I watched from the kitchen window as our robin’s egg blues, pale pinks and tie-dyed works of art met the exotic fate of a serpent’s meal.
That’s probably what started the tradition of the Easter nest, left by the Easter Bunny inside the house in a little nest of plastic grass.
Snakes slithered through my childhood; the threat of their presence affected every step I took. Whenever my sister or I went outside, my mother came with us to scan the area before we could actually traverse it.
“Watch out for snakes,” she told us in her most serious voice. “Watch every step.”
The tidal wave of severity that rolled through her commands pushed out any chance of serendipitous play. Anywhere else, my sister and I could transform the trees into elevators, leading up into the cerulean heavens; the grass a red-carpeted pathway to hell. But at the ranch, after scrutinizing our play zone, the trees were just trees and the ground was the ground.
Our rectangular ranch yard was surrounded by barbed wire. Outside the fence the grass grew tall, but inside, there was only mowed bermuda, wildflowers, sandy dirt, and mesquites. I scrubbed it clean with my eyes, like I was a scout looking for the enemy, and I was always a little disappointed when I didn’t find a snake. Even though I knew my BB gun wouldn’t do the trick, maybe I could aim for its notoriously triangular head.
At dusk, when we returned from hunting, I tippy-toed, timidly scanning the spot where my foot would fall before I took each step. Camouflage works best in last light of the day; the brown and gray pattern of a rattlesnake perfectly blends into the earth. They could be still, waiting for you to pass, so you had to look super carefully because if you stepped on them, they’d strike you.
Stumbling upon a snake wasn’t an option; we were in the middle of nowhere. The night sky attested to this. We sat outside on our Saltillo tile porch after dinner, marveling at the sky pierced with brilliant sparkling lights. I felt like we were on a boat, floating in the middle of the ocean, dropped down under a dome of stars.
No one was immune from the threats of nature. We were told cautionary tales. An old-timer cowboy had taken a fatal step onto a rattlesnake, curled up on his back porch in the predawn darkness. As a boy, my father saved a cowboy’s son from the deadly venom of a coral snake. The red, black and yellow stripes had flashed through the dull grass like a parade, calling for him to join the fun.
Red and yellow kill a fellow; red and black, venom lack.
On my scouting missions in the Palangana backyard, I always spotted more coral snakes than rattlers. I was less scared of them because they didn’t strike at you. You had to actually let them bite you to die from one of their bites.
We had sand dunes on the Palangana, wind-brushed hills of golden sand that seemed to have miraculously appeared out of nowhere, a geological souvenir from some past millennial era. I’m told that the dunes have sidewinders, a special kind of rattlesnake that undulates with great speed, and worse—buries itself in the sand. This stamped out our enthusiasm for slipping and rolling down the hills. I scanned those horizons, too, getting tricked by wooden sticks in the distance.
Since those tippy-toe days, my father sold the Palangana, and I’ve moved to two different ranches, where I’ve watched blue indigos slide up and over the “snake-proof” wall around our yard. I’ve even held one, admiring its enormous body, its smooth, flawless scaled skin. Not every snake is a threat. My fear temporarily subsided, until we moved into our new spot, where our house is on a lake.
“You have to watch out for the type of water moccasins you’ve got,” our contractor told me when we first built our house. “They’re the aggressive kind, they’re territorial and if you invade their area they’ll chase you.”
So I chant the familiar refrain to my daughters.
“Watch for snakes!” I tell Ally, before she walks to the barn to get the golf cart. I recognize the rising tide of horror in one of Ally’s friend’s faces. “Don’t worry! The snakes don’t want to see you as much as you don’t want to see them. You just have to watch out not to step on one.”
As they ride around the lake I hear them squealing and listen for that certain pitch that raises the red flag of horror in a mother’s heart. I’m grateful to hear instead laughter, bubbling out like a fountain.
When fear meets my imagination, they run away together, leaving my rational self in their dust. Before we moved there, I imagined these black angry snakes darting after me while I was a on a run. I doubted I could sprint fast enough to escape. But then I went on my first run and saw two of them slide into the water at the sound of me coming. They had a thousand other directions to go besides towards me.
One fall day, I got a close-up look. I always check the yard when I let out our two young, clueless Labradors, and that day, I saw a small one sidled up against our house, his pearly-white mouth wide open, proffering his fangs. I didn’t have a gun.
I was without one again the following week, when I saw him lurking in the landscape bed, between the ornamental grasses. I felt a strange sense of relief, seeing my fear embodied. All of the whirlwind, cyclical energy of my paranoia was suctioned back into this small creature. My fear dissipated like a Harry Potter spell. I began to see him as a kind of perverse pet, not beloved, but one to watch out for, as equally as my dogs, like a talisman of mortality. I’m trying to let that little guy hold onto my fear, but I’ll always enjoy the winter months more.