Rattlesnakes, scorpions and oppressive heat. Arizona. When asked how I felt about the impending relocation from the Midwest to Scottsdale, I had a short, descriptive answer: terrified. I harbored an extreme, unreasonable, persistent dread of rattlesnakes.
I’m not exactly a city slicker. I enjoy wilderness camping and scuba diving and have lived happily in the mountains of Colorado and on the island of Borneo. But in choosing a home in Arizona, we rejected a house with a large desert lot. Too remote, we said, and wide open to Arizona’s wildlife – bobcats, the occasional mountain lion, javelinas…and rattlesnakes.
I have never had a truly traumatic encounter with a snake, which is what made my phobia so very unreasonable. In Colorado, at age three, the snake I came eye-to-eye with on the chicken-wire fence only looked at me and slithered away as I ran screaming into the house. The stories the road construction crews there told about digging into a rattlesnake den and having the earthmover’s cab fill with a wriggling, squirming, venomous mass gave me nightmares for weeks.
As an elementary school student, I once took a little garter snake away from a classmate who was harassing me and chased him down the road with it. In college, my beau impressed my mother with the hog nose snake he had in a sock in his pocket the day he met her. After we married, we found a brightly colored milk snake and put it in a cage in the university’s psychology department animal lab. The snake escaped and severely reduced the population of young mice we’d been using as subjects in psychology experiments. We took it to a small stream to release it. I insisted he let it drink, hanging by its tail from the flap of the cardboard box, before it dropped into the water.
On a night dive in the Caribbean, a snake eel slithered up out of the coral reef, right under me, and set my heart racing. I mistakenly thought it a sea snake, highly poisonous but with a mouth so tiny it can’t grasp anything larger than your little finger. Silly me.
Maybe my own experiences with snakes had been fairly benign, but the tales others told fueled my phobia. A business colleague was bitten not once, but twice by the same rattler as the man trimmed shrubs. His treatment depleted the county’s entire supply of anti-venom – but he lived to tell the story.
One woman in my exercise group contributed to my anxiety titer when she told of awaking to find a rattler crawling across the floor toward the bed in her second-floor bedroom. The family decided that a bird of prey had dropped the snake down the chimney of the bedroom fireplace.
Honestly, though, snakes have never done anything very bad to me. Yet – I was afraid to go barefoot onto the terrace or into the garage. Keep the doors shut, I was cautioned. Oh, sure, but what about the little guys? They can slither right through the gaps.
Although I had been an avid gardener in the Midwest, in Arizona I left the bushes untrimmed and the drip heads clogged rather than take a chance on surprising one of the little buggers.
As we settled into our desert home, I called the pest management company. Bruno came to check for termites, sweep cobwebs and spray the outer walls along the foundation. His shadow loomed outside the elaborate ironwork door. Sweat dripped from his face, making dark pockmarks on the entry’s stone floor.
“Anything interesting, Bruno?” I asked.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve. He nodded.
“No, Um. Rattlesnake. In your air conditioner. Third one I’ve seen this year.”
“Here?” I squeaked.
“No, only one here. I come up on him. Scared me. Saw his skin first. Just finished shedding. His tail was sticking out of the air conditioner.”
I pride myself in being at ease in the northern wilderness and relaxed on my scuba dives, comfortable with any wildlife I might encounter above or below water. I wanted to be a good desert woman, as well, and had made some progress.
I still dumped phantom scorpions out of my shoes and refrained from walking barefoot outside at night. But I was amused by the three coyotes milling around on the terrace just outside the front door and by another that sat across the road staring at the side of the house where the roadrunner had disappeared. I felt sorry for the half dozen pack rats I retrieved from the bottom of the pool the first two weeks we were in the new house. My two-year-old granddaughter shared my delight as a “pop cat” passed silently under my writing room window at dawn. I was only slightly annoyed by the four javelinas that grubbed out my red yuccas, then ambled along the boundary wall and back into the desert. I had listened, fascinated, to the lonely, eerie wail of the great horned owls on the roof, and spoke quietly to the tiny bats that found their way to the alcove by the door. I had rescued what I thought was a Gila monster from the pool, and was pleased when it turned out to be a chuckwalla and two of them set up residence in the pool’s waterfall.
I was moving into my comfort zone in the desert. I hitched up my jeans. I was ready for my first rattlesnake.
Bruno stopped; I stopped and peered around his large frame. “See the skin, against the house,” Bruno said.
I scanned the foundation. “No-o.”
“By the fence.”
My eyes adjusted to the terrain. The slender pale fabric was almost totally camouflaged against the rubble. I would find, when I retrieved it the next day, that it was tissue-paper thin and very delicate. It was almost entirely intact, three and a half feet long and only an inch or so in diameter. The snake had quite literally crawled out of its skin.
While admiring the skin, all the eyes in the back of my head were searching for the snake. I shortened my field of vision and scanned the air conditioner unit about ten feet away. Then I spotted him—chilling out in the drip puddle from the air conditioner drain line. He was coiled in five or six amazingly precise, perfectly round loops, stacked one on top of the other, like a rope of potter’s clay formed to make a bee hive-shaped bowl. The snake’s small triangular head rested on the top coil, facing me, probably watching but showing no sign of agitation or aggression. He was beautiful. His new skin was as bright and satiny as a polished acorn. I had no sense of fear—I wanted to run my fingertips over his silky body—but, not wanting to startle him, made no attempt to approach any closer.
“Well,” I said, “he’s doing no harm. Let’s leave him alone.”
“You could call somebody to come and move him.”
I grinned. “The desert belongs to him. I’m the intruder; he’s not.”
I headed back up the wash, pleased that Snake had found my yard to be an oasis in which to shed and cool and rest.
When I dive, I am thrilled when I move through the water and among the reef creatures while they swim about me or ignore me or approach me in an inquisitive manner. Here, too, it felt as though the desert was beginning to accept me into its realm.
I checked on Snake every couple of hours. He stayed there all afternoon. His skin must have been very tender so soon after shedding. Even rattlers can’t survive more than 15 or 20 minutes in the torturous desert heat at its peak. The cool drip must have been soothing.
And then he was gone.
That’s when my anxiety rose. I no longer knew where he was. I became diligent in checking where I reached or stepped before I reached or stepped. I nudged the newspaper with the toe of my shoe before I picked it up from the driveway; I shook the doormats with trepidation.
Months passed with no sign of Snake. The weather cooled from pleasant to refreshing to uncomfortably chilly. The house next door remained vacant and dark until a flurry of activity announced its sale. Workman came repeatedly to rehab the long-neglected pool. I heard a commotion, louder and more excited than usual, and stepped onto my upper terrace to see what was going on. Four young men were climbing around the piled-rock water feature. One held the handle of a pool skimmer, 10 or 12 feet long.
I called over, “Everybody ok? Is there a problem?”
“Yeah, we’ve got a rattler, living under the pool deck. We gotta work here. God, I hate snakes.”
“Probably my snake,” I said, feeling a little smug in my new comfort zone. “Had one over here a few months ago.”
The men succeeded in draping the snake over the pole, held at arm’s length.
I watched the melee, feeling sorry for the snake.
The snake thrashed feebly, largely comatose from the cold. His body was silhouetted against the sky, dangling 15 feet above the rocky wash outside the property fence.
They swung him in my direction. “Want him back?”
It was a big snake, thick and heavy bodied, bigger than the one in my air conditioner. I wasn’t entirely certain that this was my snake. I didn’t know how rapidly a rattler could grow in a single season. Then I remembered the two active pack rat nests next to the vacant house and smiled. I hadn’t seen much activity in the nests lately. Thank you, Snake. Sorry rats.
They swung the pole, dashed the creature onto the rocks, then stabbed at it. I groaned inwardly, imagining what Snake suffered. I was surprised at the strength of my empathy and felt sick and responsible.
The guys’ vicious treatment of the snake kept gnawing at me. I knew they needed to move the snake, but the way they did it seemed unnecessarily cruel. I couldn’t seem to let it go, my snake or not.
A few days later, neighbor girls showed up with their mom, selling Girl Scout cookies. The mom asked if I’d met the new neighbors. I mentioned the rattler the workmen had found.
She interrupted me. “I found one, too.”
“You did?” I asked.
Her eyes glittered, and she became uncharacteristically animated. “Yes, I ran over it, twice. My husband went out and ran over it, too.”
I felt my gorge rise and an immense depression settle over me. “Where was it?”
“In the road, across the street from me.”
“By the common area, near that big wash?”
She nodded and looked at me intently, triumphantly.
I paused, wondering what to say. I didn’t want to offend her, but my snake… “That’s too bad,” I said.
“Yes, it might have been” – I hesitated – “my snake.”
“Your snake?” She looked panicky, horrified that she might have killed my pet.
I told her about the snake in the air conditioner and how beautiful he was. “The snake you ran over was probably on his way back to the desert, not hurting anybody, probably hurt himself.”
She looked at me apologetically. A hint of tears dulled the glitter. “I didn’t know it was your snake.”
The girls chimed in. “They’re poisonous. They’ll bite you and kill you. I hate snakes.”
I wanted to be patient, help them think about snakes, creatures, more generously. “You have to be careful. They can be dangerous, true, but few people get bitten and even fewer die of snakebites. Mostly the snakes are defending themselves when they’re frightened. Mostly they just want to be left alone so they can go about their snake business.”
I bought six boxes of cookies, and they left. I paced and fretted, worrying about Snake out there in the street, being run over again and again, smashed beyond recognition. I know, just a snake, right? And a dead one at that.
I drove to where they’d said the rattler was. Snake lay close to the curb; a few more inches and a couple of seconds and he would have made it back into the uninhabited desert. He had the girth of a large grapefruit – flattened yet still thick – several times broader than My Snake and maybe six inches longer. He had a handsome string of rattles. A great-granddaddy, or maybe – mother – of a snake; a magnificent specimen. He deserved to be treated with dignity.
He was very heavy and had begun to putrefy. I edged the shovel under him, reminding myself that this was a venomous creature. I carried him down into the wash and gently laid out his body under a sage bush, leaving him in as natural a position as I could. The desert would reclaim him, going about its desert business.
The weather has warmed again. I’m a little anxious about the snakes; I certainly don’t want to be bitten. However, having had a, well – personal – relationship with my Snake has fostered a sense of kinship with these beautiful creatures that I might not otherwise have found.