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.