Nan–Nan! Please listen! You’re just my older sister, You’re not my mother. You could not have prevented any of it so try not to blame yourself. It all just happened, things happen. Sometimes they are just a chain of unconnected events. Think about all the good—no, the great—stuff you have done, the stuff you have done for us, for me, try to think about that for a minute. For example—if it weren’t for you, because of you, me and the sibs would not have learned to love the small animals that live near the stream back at the old house. But you know that already—it has been one of your gifts to us all. You have never harmed any of us.
But there has been a kind of family secret that we need to get out from under, and I guess that it’s partly out now. You know some of it, and that’s the part your worrying over, and the others know some, but there is a part that only I know anything about. It has a bit to do with animals.
I think you are the only one who needs to read this, and the only one who might understand why a grown man would still play with the tiniest frogs, and be tortured by these memories, and not think that I am weird. It has to do with you. Nothing horrible (except for me), and nothing dangerous, so don’t worry. I have written it out in story form because I couldn’t stand the confessional, victim, sound of a direct complaining letter to you. So…….
At the house there were all kinds of small creatures. The house backed-up on a thin tributary of the Charles that came down over the rocky mess under Harvey Road Bridge. Sometimes it was a small smelly stream that barely covered the gravel at it’s bottom. Sometimes in stormy weather it was a shocking noisy torrent several feet deep moving as fast as the traffic overhead. When it was tired it would leave all sorts of stuff caught in the stream bed. I found maybe twenty bowling balls, some cracked pins, a few broken chairs, lots of boxes, some with stuff inside, and once a small wooden statue of an Indian snake charmer. I still have it. One time I found an old rusty revolver. I still have that too. But most of the time it was a slow wide eddy, a rotating scummy ponding of river water and spinning cupcake wrappers.
We thought it was a gift put there expressly for us. It brought an endless flood of baby slider turtles like happy wind-up butter cookies, some snappers as determined and fierce as they were tiny, all sorts of bulgy-eyed frogs; proud aggressive bluegills with an endless appetite for bread-balls and night-crawlers, baby horned-pout, cute as newborn kittens, penny candy spotted salamanders, and lots of black water snakes. Wintertimes we played hockey on the bumpy ice and watched fish swim under several inches of black ice. We stared in religious fascination at fish so unfortunate as to be frozen under eight inches of solid inches below our blades. Some, in the thickest black ice of the shallows were frozen in place, a natural museum exhibit. But one time in the spring, we saw these same fish thaw out and swim away while we watched. We learned a lot about second chances from this icy lesson. Not all creatures are so fortunate as to escape from eternal frozen-wide-awake immobility.
I was a little afraid of the many snakes near the pond when I was little, but frogs were there too, and they were always funny for me, precious and beautiful, even mysterious. So much like miniature human cartoons. Some of us kids liked bugs, but never me. I had to put up with them and catch them because my pet frogs needed them to eat. Whenever we fooled around in the weeds near the stream we would find some creature. Most always, maybe because I was afraid of them and extra watchful, I would be the first one to find snakes. They were as afraid of me as I was of them. So for some years I just watched them without touching them.
Nan encouraged all of our creature pleasures as she got on into high school and college science, but mostly I just gradually learned to love snakes, not from any school or library books but from watching the snakes sunning themselves. Snakes, fresh from shedding their skins are perfect, so silent, and private. Lucky, because if the snakes around our house could talk, they would tell all kinds of stories about me and my family.
Snakes are kind of like stories. Both are everywhere, but mostly only people with keen eyes or ears can find them. Stories have to be pulled out of everyday surroundings by the thinnest threads, out from under the stuff left over in the drink cans and food wrappers that litter the vacant lots and backyards of most houses. Snakes are like that too. Lucky if you find one, hard to keep your hands on it if you do. Even harder to extract it from it’s wound-up grip on the grass and roots without fear of doing some damage to it’s delicate beautiful body, or to yourself.
Eventually I recognized the innocence of all these beasties. I believed of course that they were the innocents, unlike me, who never could be. But they bore me no grudges or suspicions. If I treated them with respect and caution, and did not insult their privacy, they did me no harm, and were better company than my family, excepting Nan. Now I indentify with snakes I guess. Sometimes I wish I lived under a piece of cool linoleum in an old back lot somewhere and still had Nan to comfort me. But she will never trust me.
My favorites were the most delicate, the ring-necked-snakes, yellow-bellied, and the green grass snakes, these are rarities now, not like when I was a kid. You would think that these simple elegant green snakes, green and common as grass, would be easiest to find. But they hide in their extraordinary colors within the banality of lawns (hiding by means of a holy green, iridescent and finer than any green except that of a butterfly or an oil slick) so that the fewer there are, the harder it is for a skilled snake-catcher like me to spot an isolated survivor. But they are still there. I’m sure of it.
The neighborhood was generally too poor to afford carpeting inside the houses, but cheap chemicals to make lawns greener and grow faster, and to kill bugs, gave the illusion of a wall to wall in the front yard. These delusions killed off most of the sweet snakes.
There still is some sort of lawn near most every house in my town, even the foreclosed ones, and there are still a few snakes hiding in the lawns (I check them out once in a while when I walk the pug). There are stories in the flaking houses too. Houses are where stories hide. Gossips and storytellers try to dig them up. But find one and just you try to pull it out without breaking it’s back by using It for your own purposes, or by disrespect, killing it. It’s delicate work you lose a few in the beginning and never get over feeling sad and guilty about it. Sometimes the stories are better off untold. Snakes, too, are safer left in their crevices under the rock, or coiled up like ashes from burnt-out “Clown” citronella incense under old kitchen linoleum. So are we.
The grass snakes nearest the oldest farmhouses are harmless, but sometimes the nearby stories inside the houses are too full of trouble for the troubadour and for those who once lived in the houses.
Untold stories are our town’s histories of hidden harm. Telling stories releases harm, reactivates it, stirs up old dust. But sometimes when a story finally does get told it relieves harm. Either way, once you have a snake by the tail you won’t know what kind it is until you have pulled it all the way out of it’s hole and have a look at it.
In the beginnings of stories there are curiosities that we can’t understand until the ending. A lot of times if you get one by the tail you have no idea what kind of head it has, or if it will come back at you and bite you. The catching happens so fast. I never have been sure of my ability to remember the stripes of poisonous snakes and the stripes and colors of the peaceful ones. Despite my pleasure in snake lore I’m no expert. I’ve made mistakes. Most snakes are really peaceful. But, for sure, some snakes bite, and some stink from musk, and some are deadly poisonous. You take your chances. Discover beauty or be bitten.
Opening up an old hidden story can be the same. Something long buried, swept under the rug and ‘forgotten’, is dredged up and made public — sort of a Pandora’s Box situation.
Like when I was out in the field near the old stamping mill lifting up sheets of tin and other scraps left behind when they bankrupted. I was looking for black racers and kings. I knew that they can both bite, but they are super fast and incredibly beautiful. I pulled up the sharp edge of a big old rusted sheet of roofing tin from one of the sheds that had fallen in and found four blacksnakes at the same time! Wow! The biggest was thick, with a big head and a vicious streak. After a couple of seconds of shocked immobility this big one struck at me twice and missed. She recoiled and they all went off in different directions at full speed. I could only follow that same big one that bombed on past me to the left. Since the grass where it headed was an old dirt truck path, there was nowhere for my prize blacksnake to hide. She could only ‘swim’ away on the flat dust with me following. She led us both to a place where sumac trees formed a kind of protected bower surrounded by poison ivy vines. That stuff stopped me, it always does. The snake got away from me in there.
I tried to find a safe way around the ivy into the darker space under the sumac to begin the search again. Only one trampled footpath led inside and I followed it carefully. I never did touch a single poisonous leaf. The light was too dim to find snakes or much of anything in there, but it was cool at noon, and quiet, and I was out of breath and hot. I sat. Luck had not run away completely, because as I felt my way to sit down I found a perfect clean old jackknife with a brown horn handle and no rust. It was just like the one my Nan’s ex-boyfriend had showed me months ago. I felt very lucky even if I hadn’t caught the blacksnake.
It was so pleasant and cool in there, with my newfound knife in my hand, that I lay down, and fell asleep in a few minutes. A distant factory whistle woke me. Lunch hour was over. The noise of the nearby city got louder.
Now, it was not so cool and comfortable in the bower anymore, but getting hot and steamy. With the jackknife safe in my pocket it was time to go. I pushed down against the ground with both hands to get up from where I lay, and the fingers of my left hand got tangled in some sticky stuff. Standing, and outside in the sunlight, I saw that I was stuck to cloth by some gooey red paint. No—it was clothing and old dark red blood, almost black in the sun. I was holding a girl’s inner pants actually, the kind I was never supposed to look at, even in the Sears Catalogue. (but of course I had looked or I would not have known what I was stuck to). I sat down again, pretty suddenly as I remember it, and got up again just as fast, and ran full-speed all the way home, wheezing, crying, and moaning with fear, disgust, and shame all at the same time.
No one was home. The back door was unlocked as always, and I slammed the screen-door shut, locked it with the hook, and turned the inside key on the solid door. All of this with only my right hand.
Up on the second floor — with nobody to forgive me or to punish me for all of this mess I had got myself into — I panicked. I had to pee and my nose itched (these two things always happened to me when I got worried or my hands were messy or busy). I scrambled into the bathroom but I couldn’t pee because my hands were bloody and sticky, and now to my horror, stinky. I couldn’t touch my penis with those bloody hands because, because I was beginning to think the blood was female stuff. I couldn’t dare touch my pants to unzip my fly for fear of marking myself forever with the blood. A dark musky stink of guilt and injury surrounded and marked me no matter what I tried to do. Writhing there on the bathroom floor, paralyzed like a kid about to be executed, feeling helpless once again, I peed in my dungarees. That kind of jolted me into action. I kicked off my warm wet dungies and my now yellowed underpants dropping them onto the shower floor and jumped in after them. The water was icy for a long time before the warmer water came up to the second floor. I got rinsed soaped off and clean. It took me a while, and gave me time to think and remember stuff the way a shower always does.
As I stamped the soap out of my pants on the shower floor, I remembered a similar-looking disgusting mess a few months ago when in the middle of the night, Nan, my sister, screamed and passed out in this same bathroom sometime after midnight when everyone in the house was sleeping. My parents woke up and broke in through the locked bathroom door. Nan was on the floor bleeding and they all began screaming at each other.
That’s what I saw as I squirmed my way through the crowd. My father came out with something horrible and dripping in a bath towel. My mother passed out in the hallway. To go and help mom, my father put the bundle down on the second floor porch threshold outside, where I saw a little bit of what was wrapped up inside it. Eventually they all calmed down and went crying into Nan’s room. On the way they yelled at me to shut up, dry myself of and go back to bed. I had already peed in my pajamas because the only bathroom was full of screaming grownups and I was scared by all I had seen. But I got in there slipping around on all the bloody linoleum and rugs, and kicked off my pants and slippers that were full of piss. I felt like a baby who had wet the bed again. Mostly I stank of my own pee, but there was that other smell on my feet.
Now, this time, I was deeper into trouble that I had somehow caused, I gagged from that rank dark smell that seemed to still be rising indelibly from my hands and feet. I remembered how back then in the dark and screaming night-time, the same nauseating stink had come up from the bath mat and the dumb little mat around the toilet. There had been a lot of blood when I squished on that mat. That middle of the night I had got too scared to wash myself, I peed some more and then threw up, I had to poop at the same time and it just fell out where I stood, into the bloody mat. I ran from there into my bed and cried for hours. I lay there messy as I must have been, just as now I had run from the sumac bower. I remembered the same dark, warm smell that I had choked me last fall. And the shame!
What was this mystery of bloodiness? I was 12 years old. Blood was about shooting Indians in the movies. Never at home. Women’s and girls stuff was for women and girls and I had heard rumors that girls sometimes had something to do with blood. I dared not ever ask about it. I didn’t want to know about it. This seemed to be girl’s stuff that I had got tangled into. I knew nobody would believe me that I had not gone snooping into anywhere or any stuff that didn’t concern me. And then there was the sin part.
I cleaned up the floors and the sink. I cleaned the toilet holding my nose with one hand. I tried to not make the room too clean in case someone noticed and asked me why that was. I put away the cleaning stuff just the way it was and wrapped up the dirty stuff in paper bags and took it down to the shed and dumped it into one of the tin containers that we had there along with the other tenants, and made sure that it was covered over by older garbage. I brought my dungarees out on the back porch, put them through the wringer and then down into the back yard where I rubbed the knees and behind in dirt to make it look like I had got them messy by accident in some game and hung them in the sun on a clothesline way in back.
As I turned to come back from the clothes, I saw a large sunning black racer on a piece of old carpeting near the rocks at the edge of the yard. I launched myself across the short distance, landed on my knees and belly with my hands firmly around the racer’s body and neck. I had finally caught one! And a beauty! The bit of carpeting was the old silly piece from in front of the toilet that my father must have thrown off the porch that middle-of-the-night.
I shuddered and squealed. I let go of the snake. It fell on the carpet and ducked under it. Horrified and angry I grabbed the edge to pull out the snake and got him again, but with one hand. He immediately turned around and bit me twice near the wrist. I held on but fell on my knees to grab him and in the process threw the rug several feet away.
I got control of the snake, and myself. The snake curled up around my forearm and was calmer than I was. At my feet, where this prize snake had coiled, and where the rug had protected the ground for a long time, was a small heaped-up and patted-down pile of dirt ringed by a rectangle of small stones. It was something a younger kid might make for a toy soldier’s hill, or to burry a dead cat. But there was a plastic cross stuck into the ground at one end. It was the one from my father’s rear-view-mirror. I carefully put the jackknife down next to it.
I released the snake and watched him move away with the dignity of a free grown-up snake. All the rumors I had heard came together in my mind with a kind of thump. Weeping, I delicately put the rug back down over the mound and swept everything that had happened to me and my family under it.