I Was Raised in a Barn: Snakes

I have said that you can’t seriously keep all livestock and vermin out of a barn; it’s not what it’s built for.  Barns are built to contain livestock and forage and tools.  You want the mice and raccoons and bats to stay out?  Go live in a house.  We had our share of creatures that occasionally showed up inside and out: my dog Fio had such a track record of finding and engaging with porcupines that I began to think he simply had quill-induced amnesia: any dog dumb enough to believe after being thrice speared by a porcupine that This Time Will Be Different is raising the triumph of Hope over Experience to an artform.  He was also talented in the skunk department, too; but then, he’d occasionally go down and swim in the Housatonic River, which at that point was so polluted that it’s wonder the poor animal didn’t set off Geiger counters when he returned home.

But I digress.

In addition to bats and porcupines and pigeons and the like, we had snakes.  When I was small I had one of those field books to American snakes, which is why, when some workmen saw a snake sunning itself on a rock one day, took it for a rattler, and wanted to kill it (and my father came running down with the machete, ready to assassinate the snake) I threw myself, Pocahontas-like, in the path of the blade and said “NO! It’s a milk snake!” and got my Field Book and, identifying the snake, saved its life.  The snake, probably unaware of how close it had come to death, kept on sunning itself.

Sometimes snakes would attempt to enter the Barn.  This was frowned on; I remember my Grannie Louise trying to sweep a garter snake out of the house one day while saying “Shoo! Shoo!” to the thing.  By the time this happened, I had so far retreated from my early ophidiophilia as to be distinctly anti-snake, especially in the house.  I didn’t think the snake was going to respond particularly well to the broom, however.  It slithered away from Grannie and further into the house, into a hole in the baseboard, and for all I know lived the rest of its snaky life in the warmth of the baseboard heating system.

Even after I’d gone off to college and the Barn had become more water-tight and secure than it had been in my childhood, snakes would occasionally make attempts on the peace of the household.  My father had a pile of gourds from his garden near the big sliding glass door in the hallway (when I say big, I mean twenty feet wide, two stories high, and made of spruce and plate glass.  The thing weighed a literal ton).  By report (I was at school) one day Dad’s dog Nellie started barking furiously at the gourds.  Dad’s first thought was that Nellie was spazzing out; she was a great dog, but high strung.  As he got closer Dad realized that the gourds were moving–rattling, even.  Without further ado he grabbed that machete (and I think dispatched Nellie to the bathroom so she wouldn’t tussle with something that might bite her) and, when the snake showed itself, lopped off its head.  You might say this was delayed gratification from the milk snake incident all those years ago.  After he’d killed the snake (and realized that the rattling had been the gourds, not the snake) Dad got curious and tried to find the snake in the field guide.  Didn’t see it.  So, being a practical fellow, he cut the snake up into handy three inch chunks, put them in a Ziploc bag, and put the bag in the freezer.  Dad had a plan, see.

Fast forward about seven months.  I’m home, and get volunteered to take Nellie to the vet for what Dad used to call her once-a-year tire-kicking and shots.  As I was backing out of the driveway Dad came trotting over to the car.  “Here!” he said blithely, and handed me a cold Ziploc bag, foggy with ice and condensation.  “Ask Dr. Collins what this is.”

“What what is?”

“What kind of snake that is.”

I didn’t drop the bag, but it did give me a start.  Maybe two starts.  Still, I am my father’s daughter, and I had been given my orders.  So I put the Ziploc bag in my purse and drove off to the vet’s.  There, I got to hold Nellie as she got checked out–a process no German Shorthair worth her neurotic salt enjoys–and exchanged pleasantries with Dr. Collins.  At the end of the visit, just as we were leaving, I remembered the bag.

“Oh! I almost forgot.  Dad asked if you could identify this.”  I held out the Ziploc bag to the vet.

In memory, he levitated over the big steel examining table and plastered himself against the back wall, exclaiming “Jesus, Mary, Joseph!” in an Irish brogue I had not heard from him before.  Turns out that Dr. Collins was less enthusiastic about snakes than I.  Even frozen snakes.  In three inch chunks.

I took the bag home to Dad and explained why I had no information for him.  He looked at the bag for a long minute, then tossed it in the trash.  I’m only glad he didn’t decide to add it to the stew.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


I Was Raised in a Barn: Snakes — 7 Comments

  1. This was the single drawback of the cabin in the woods (we discovered during YMCA summer camp) was how certain forms of wildlife had different notions about privacy than we did.

  2. I live in a manufactured home with the distinctive feature of a 4X4 at each corner. Apparently a crow had decided to dine on a fat red racer garter snake, picked it up, dropped it from some height onto the roof hoping the fall would kill his dinner.

    Nope. The wounded snake slithered downward, found the 4X4 a convenient hiding place and got stuck. Months later my neighbors spotted the mummified front half arched out of the crevice, the back half jammed in the crack between post and siding. Everyone knows I have to be weird with a dragon crossing sign on my carport and a green man stepping stone under the cedar tree. Who else would have mummified snake rising out of their siding?

    No one, I mean no one in the development would touch that snake, though it had been dead for months. Finally I got the step ladder, garden gloves and a zip lock baggie, eased the carcass free and presented it to the first man who had pointed it out to me. He as reputed to be a mighty hunter and fisherman, outdoors man who only heated with a wood stove, and hiked all over the mountain. He wouldn’t touch the thing. I left it on his porch. He got forceps and dumped it into the garbage.

    Poor unwanted snake.

  3. I work in the security department at a hotel in Tucson right in the foothills. We get LOTS of snake calls. Last weekend we had a baby rattler in the laundry room and a tiny king snake near one of the ballrooms. One of the guys found a huge, vicious rattler he couldn’t safely capture, so he decapitated, skinned and mounted it and now “El Diablo” is hanging on our wall.

    Of course, we also get calls for javelinas, tarantulas, lizards, gila monsters, mice, skunks, coyotes, bobcats, and the ringtail cat which managed to get into one of the ballrooms and up onto the rafters. Had to call animal control for that one.

  4. In one of my earlier incarnations I ghost-wrote a couple of books about Heroic Game Wardens, and learned that New York City has a small corps of game wardens, and they are the guys who handle calls like that. You know: the moron who finds a baby mountain lion and brings it back to the city to raise it, and hasn’t been in his bedroom for six months because all he can do is throw another steak in and slam the door quickly? Or the idiot who brings a “miniature alligator” back from Florida and thereby loses the use of her bathtub? These are the guys who deal with that stuff–as well as hunting down coyotes on Fifth Avenue. “Me? I work at the intersection of downtown and nature…”

    Rattlers. **flinch**

  5. Last week an NYC game warden had to rescue a red-tail hawk that had somehow gotten into an apartment building (the theory is that it flew in through an open stairwell window) and was flying around in the halls.