My wife saw him first-riding ahead of me as she always did-and pulled off to wait for me. She was eyeing something on the trail that, even from a distance, I could tell was a snake. This has been a great summer for snakes and I’d caught and played with big blacksnakes, whippey little garters, a hog nosed, a couple of rat snakes and one beautiful corn snake that I wanted to keep. But didn’t. From the profile on the trail I expected a big black.
“Figured you’d want to see this one”, she said as I braked to a stop.
Getting closer, there was no mistaking. The sunlight shining off it’s head named it perfectly. She had heard the stories about all the copperheads I had caught as a boy. Climbing up the sunny rocks overlooking the river or kicking through the driftwood piles on the bends. There was no “why” to it back then but the excuse that I was sixteen or seventeen with more testosterone than brains.
There were belts, hat bands and just plain salted skins oiled and mounted on the garage walls. There were one or two still around when we got together which led to the stories. My rule then was to catch them alive and dispatch them gently, in a way that wouldn’t damage the skin.
That was as good an explanation as any but she knew better. She could hear in the stories the rush of hanging over a rocky outcropping forty feet above the water and yanking a copperhead by it’s tail from a fissure in the rock, dropping it to the ground and being quick enough to snatch it behind the head before it came back on me. To hold it thrashing in my fist-feeling the strength of it’s body and seeing the bare fangs wanting nothing more than to be inside me-got my heart racing like nothing else back then. Truth be told, that one had almost gotten me on the thumb. I had sat in the hot sun, legs dangling over the river, for a good twenty minutes until my heart regained its normal pace. I kept that skin the longest.
These days I give copperheads wide berth as much as I can. They and I share similar tastes in surroundings and terrain so they are always near. But avoidable. This guy, though, is right here. “You’re not going to pick it up, are you?” she asked noticing me moving toward the snake. She quickly repeated the words as a declaration rather than a question in case the seventeen year old me bubbled to the surface with none of the requisite reflexes or quickness.
“Naw. Just watching him move off into the tall grass. Beautiful, isn’t he…”
“You don’t kill what can’t harm you. And you shouldn’t kill what can harm you unless it’s a threat to you right there….Go around just killing stuff, it’ll eventually come back on you. It throws things out of whack.”
-from “Strange as this Weather Has Been”; a novel by Ann Pancake