The Detective’s Daughter — Slither!

Kim in Baltimore watching the snow melt on the first day of spring.

I don’t like snakes, never have. Growing up in the city amongst concrete and black top, I’d really no reason to come across one, but it didn’t stop me from checking under the toilet seat or searching under my bed before I went to sleep.

Most children are afraid of the dark, afraid of some inanimate object eerily coming to life in their room, or of a monster lurking under their bed or in their closet. My fear was something I could name, a reptile I could visit in the zoo or, worse yet, at the circus my mom and Nana insisted on dragging me to every March. The circus train would pass our house each spring on its way to Penn Station. On many occasions it would stop just outside our back doorstep, waiting for what I was never sure. It was in these moments, as the train sat silently, I worried the most.

Suppose one of those slithering creatures escaped? I was never concerned about the lions or tigers, they’d be missed immediately. But how long would it take to notice a lone missing snake?

It was Thanksgiving morning. I was fourteen years old. We had just begun to prepare the relish trays, I was in charge of the pickles and my sister took care of the olives. The sirens from a radio car and fire engine broke the calm order of our holiday. We were good neighbors, so we shuffled outside, coffee mugs in hand, to stand with the rest of our block. We did our duty and showed our concern by standing on the pavement and gawking at the house where the emergency vehicles were parked.

“Kitchen fire,” said one neighbor.

“Heart attack,” said another. But there was no ambulance. Seconds later Animal Control pulled up. One man carried a large stick, the other man held what looked like a laundry bag.

“Snake,” Dad said.

The poor woman in that house had found an eight-foot python behind her stove. A young man several blocks away had been in search of his pet python, Serena was her name, all morning. Fortunately, Serena had been well fed and cared for by her owner and the woman or her Toy Poodle had not been on the python’s Thanksgiving menu.

I learned two things that day; snakes seek out warmth, and that my fear was not as unfounded as my parents led me to believe. There’s more than one benefit to sleeping in a cool room, I thought.

When I was twenty-five years old I taught preschool. A local nature center came to give a presentation one afternoon. The center was known for their care and rehabilitation of wild animals. I arranged for this program because I wanted my inner-city students to see these animals up close and to learn how to respect nature. The director of the center brought along with her quite a few animals that included an opossum, a barn owl, a hawk, and, of course, a snake.

“I need a volunteer,” she said to the crowd. My principal pushed me forward. “This was your idea, after all,” she  reminded me.

My job was to hold the snake. I thought I was going to faint. I could actually hear my heart beat in my ears along with great swooshing noises. I swallowed my fear and held out my hand for the small yellow and brown corn snake. Her name was Lipstick and her skin felt soft as silk material, not like slime or leather as I’d feared. She gently moved her body around my wrist and up my arm flicking her tongue in and out. It was the only time I’ve ever held a snake.

My dad was sixty-one years old when he came to live with me and my family after his house  burned down. As the months passed, it became apparent he was not well. It was hard for him to put sentences together or to walk very far. We turned our family room on the first floor into a bedroom for him where he’d have easy access to the bathroom and the back porch where he could go to smoke.

By year’s end he began to have mini strokes and was now unable to move around on his own. I took him all his meals and sat with him drinking endless cups of coffee while watching game and talk shows.

One evening, after everyone was asleep and  I was up reading, I began hearing odd sounds. I checked the children, but they were sleeping soundly. The dogs were curled by the fireplace. After checking each room without discovering the source of the shuffling sound, I decided to check on Dad. He had been asleep for hours. I opened the door at the top of the stairs and saw a brown pattern move on the steps. I screamed and flipped on the lights. There was Dad slithering up towards me, his tongue twitched from side to side as he slid on his belly maneuvering his way up the stairs.

“Did I scare you?” he asked and rolled over on his back. I could barely breathe. My body shook so hard I had to sit down on the floor. I reached down and touched his shoulder to reassure myself it was only my dad. His face was covered in sweat from exertion.

“I want that brown stuff in a mug,” he said.

“Coffee?” I asked. “I will bring you your coffee.” But I still couldn’t move.

“I scared you,” he said again and began to laugh.

He laughed so hard for so long he sent himself into a coughing fit. It took the fire department to get him off the steps and back in bed. He continued to tell the story and laugh about it for days afterward. I believe it was the last hearty laugh he enjoyed.

In my childhood I was not afraid of ghost or the dark, but of something slithering near me. My dad has been gone from this world for eleven years now, but there has not been one time since that evening that I have not been leery of opening that door and just a bit terrified I might find him slithering up towards me.

19 Thoughts

  1. Why did you make me look at a snake picture first thing in the morning?? I have had several snake adventures, several of which ended badly for the snake. I also had a father who enjoyed a good laugh, and a joke.

    1. Sorry, Ramona! That photo of the snake was taken by my daughter. They know I am terrified of snakes, but still my children can not resist capturing them and bringing them home to show me. That particular snake was in a large paint bucket and was sitting on the table on our front porch. I won’t let them bring them in the house and I make them take the snakes back where they found them. I think they believe they are helping me overcome a fear – at least that’s what I try to convince myself. I don’t think my daughter believes I’m really afraid, I have her convinced I am fearless. My son, on the other hand, is a bit too much like my dad and enjoys seeing how far he can push me.

  2. I don’t like slithering things, either. I’m glad your dad got a good last laugh, but the way you told the story was very very creepy, Kim. brrr.

    1. It was creepy, I thought I was going to keel over – which my dad would have still laughed! I cannot go down that particular set of stairs without that night in my mind, and I never walk down in the dark.

  3. Oh no. You couldn’t live in the Carolinas. I’ve had a few snake encounters. At the park, slithering across the street, on the sidewalk while out walking, moving through grass. It gave new meaning to the term “snake in the grass.” I almost stepped on a snake while out walking with my husband some years back. I was talking to him and he suddenly pushed me into the street. I looked at him puzzled and he said “didn’t you see that snake?” I looked back to see a snake with its body erect, ready to strike!! Yup….quite a few encounters but thankfully never bitten. Some of them are quite dazzling to look at though. I’m afraid and fascinated at the same time.
    I smiled thinking of your dad having a hearty laugh.

    1. Every new place I visit my first question is always, “are there snakes around here?” I seem to be a magnet for them, as if they can smell my fear. When I was first married we lived with my husband’s mother who had a beautiful home in the woods. One afternoon as I was putting clothes in the laundry machine I went to reach for the detergent and I found a huge black snake curled up in the sink next to me. It took a lot of convincing on both my husband’s and mother-in-law’s part to get me back back into the house.

      1. Lol….that’s a pretty traumatizing experience. I’ve seen black snakes crossing the road. They look like big, black belts. I’ve heard it’s good to have them around because they eat the harmful critters, but I’m not sure if that’s enough to convince me to dwell together peacefully with them.

  4. I’m kind of fond of snakes. I rescued a garter snake from our cats when I was nine, but my mother wasn’t happy about keeping it in the house so made me take it to school (in Philadelphia) where it promptly escaped.

    But one unexpected encounter: at one of the San Francisco museums (I forget which, but it wasn’t the zoo), there was a display of a very, very large living python in a glassed-in space at eye level. At its broadest point it was about the size of my thigh. I couldn’t take my eyes off it as I watched it move slowly, its muscles rippling. It was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen. Who knew?

    1. I’d like to think my fear isn’t as strong now, but I know that’s just wishful thinking. I did, however, become extremely fond of Lipstick and visited her on many occasions, though I never held her again. When my children were toddlers I took them to meet her. My daughter, who was older, held Lipstick. Neither of my children have any fear at all of any animals. A week or so later I read in the paper that there had been a break-in at the nature center and a few animals and reptiles had been stolen including Lipstick. To this day this makes me sad wondering what happened to her.

    1. I’d like to be neutral, but I’m well past that now. I have been trying to remember the reason I was so afraid in the first place. The only thing I can recall is when I was a child we would go to my Aunt Esther’s house for Easter. She lived in a rural area of Baltimore County which has now been built up, but at the time seemed like the middle of the wilderness to me. She and her husband, Unclie Charlie, had built a cabin out of railroad ties(sp?) and I always looked forward to the visits. When I was about five or six, while we were on our egg hunt, I discovered a nest of baby snakes near the outhouse (yes, she actually had one -which of course, I never used again!) and ran screaming onto the porch. Pop-Pop and Aunt Esther tried to tell me they were black snakes and harmless, but I wasn’t hearing any of it. I thought that might have been the beginning of my fear, but I don’t think so. I think I was born with it. Maybe I was Cleopatra in another life!

  5. I don’t think I have the fear of snakes that you do, but I certainly have a healthy respect for them. I enjoy looking at them from across the room while they are in a glass case.

    1. Yes, I can do that. I must say, though, the one Harry Potter movie where Harry talks to the snake and he goes after Dudley nearly made me run from the cinema.

  6. Wow. You are such a great writer.

    We used to vacation with another couple and the husband was afraid of snakes. One day he and I were sitting in lounge chairs on the little beach at our rental watching our pre-schoolers play in the water, when a brown snake slithered out of the grass and parked itself right under his chair. All I could think is, “Do I say something or keep my mouth shut?” I ended up staying quiet, and the snake eventually slithered away.

    What would you have wanted me to do?

    1. Ignorance is bliss! However, with my luck the snake would’ve crawled in my lap. I like to go hiking and it never fails that every time I’ve taken a break and sat on a rock there was a snake that had the exact same idea. It’s hard to say which one of us was more afraid.
      Thank you for the lovely compliment and your never-ending support. ❤️

  7. I don’t have a problem with snakes, either. But that is because the ones I have seen outside in southern Ontario are pretty harmless (garter snakes).
    Sheila: that sexy rippling python visual is stuck in my head now!

    1. It is true, snakes seem to have a sexy reputation. I remember my male cousins having a large poster of a nude Nastassja Kinski wrapped in a snake. It’s an image that’s hard to remove from your mind even after all these years.

  8. I’m no fan of snakes, but am not terrified of them, either. Once in the rain forest of Peru, I went with a guide and 4 other men for a late night hike. The guide found a snake and asked if anyone wanted to hold it. Once I was assured it was non-poisonous I said, “Sure”. None of the men would go near it. I had the 3-foot snake wrapped around my arm and danced. Forever after I’ve been called the snake lady. But I wouldn’t pick one up on my own – I can never tell if they are poisonous! With my luck….

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