Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

I Killed a Snake!


            I was a dreamy, exhausted child. The exhaustion fed the dreaminess, because I was mostly exempted from work around our house for reasons I didn’t fully understand. This left me plenty of time to nurture a rather wild imagination. (At five, I gripped the corner of my sheet during a routine night of insomnia and the thing began to stretch into a long kite-tail that sprang to life and whipped me through the bedroom window out into the street where it whirled me between houses up and down the neighborhood. Gradually it reeled me back in until I slid safely into bed. The experience was so vivid I spent several days trying to figure out if it had really happened.)

When I offered to dust or vacuum, my mother refused the help. She said I had allergies and that dust made me sneeze. My brother and sister joined my parents in spading up the garden, but I was told to stay in because the pollen would make me cough. I sat on the turquoise sofa one spring looking out the picture window at everyone else working. It didn’t strike me as odd.

                I suppose that’s because my mother, who was a pretty tough nut, really believed something was wrong. And certainly there was. Mrs. Heald, my elderly kindergarten teacher, sent a little note home with me (probably pinned to my blouse) the second day of school. It read something like this:

                Dear Mrs. Summers,

                Please do not send milk money to school with Eve anymore. She has vomited her milk both mornings. Thank you.

Mrs. Heald

                My father was a bit tougher on me. Well into my adulthood, he confessed that he was sorry he had forced me to drink milk as a child. I accepted the apology. Milk made my stomach hurt and my head ache. But in 1957 no one seemed to be talking about food allergies, so mine went undiagnosed. And there was no getting around drinking my milk at home. In first grade, I rebelled at dinner-time, which began at 5 p.m. I was told to stay at the table until my milk was gone. At 9 p.m., weary of sitting and determined not to drink a drop, I thought of a brilliant move: dump it all in the garage. My mother found the curdled mess the next morning.

On camping trips, I could dribble it away under the picnic table, little by little. All three of us disposed of our spam sandwiches by stuffing them into our pockets (Murray), wadding them up in our napkins (Kay) or grinding them underfoot into the grass beneath the picnic table (Eve). This we found out in adulthood.

But to return to my point: not much was asked of me, and this led to hours upon hours of doodling and scribbling in my ever-present notebooks, a habit that has continued to the present day. While my brother and sister fetched wood and water at our campsites on vacations, I sketched clothing designs and drew plans for the perfect campground, which featured a small oblong lake encircled by two dozen campsites, each with an English garden and a little sandy lakeshore.

                My parents were not fanciful people. They both started their lives on farms, so I might have gained a practical education if I had been working with them in or out of the house. But, being a city girl who stayed indoors, I didn’t learn much about the natural world. This has led to embarrassing moments. There was the time I worked briefly on a pig farm in Hampshire, England, shoveling a very dark pile of something wet into a wheelbarrow and transporting it to another wet pile to dump. At the end of the morning, I asked the pig farmer’s wife what I had been shoveling. Was it mud? I wondered. She looked at me quizzically to see if I was joking. “No,” she said with a smile. “That was pig manure.”

So my practical greenness showed itself again today. At ten o’clock this morning, I was busily tilling up my third row of soil for English peas in our kitchen garden when, suddenly, colors flickered through the soil. A head rose; little black eyes turned on me, and a forked tongue darted out. It moved toward me. Smash! Crash! My spade went lethal, striking everywhere as the snake wriggled and writhed. After ten wild stabs, the body went still, but the head still leered at me. I maneuvered it onto the end of my spade and chucked it over the garden wall.

I returned to spading up the soil. Something gray moved. I went after it with a smack and discovered I’d hit a toad. He was still alive, so I helped him over the fence and hoped he’d survive. A few minutes later, a cobalt blue tail shimmered in the dirt. Frightened, I stabbed at it with my shovel and then saw the whole creature—a brilliant lizard. A brown creature slithered by like a snake. At eight inches long, this thing was either the longest worm I’d ever seen or a baby snake. I took a few seconds to think. If it was an earthworm, and I cut it in two, it would still live. The spade sliced quickly and two creatures wriggled away.

Tired of playing the mass murderer in my own garden, I stopped to think. An innocent toad and lizard were now wounded or dead, and perhaps a harmless snake, too. And yet, I needed protection. Leather sandals were the wrong footgear. I left the garden to find the Wellies our daughter had bequeathed me two summers before, commenting to Ross in passing that I’d just killed a snake. He was surprised. It was kind of surprising. But it was instinctive. Locals have warned us about the snakes in the Carolina lowlands. Some of them are lethal, and I don’t know my snakes. Or my lizards or earthworms.

The experience stayed with me the rest of the day, heavy with spiritual overtones. I thought of Eve in the original garden, dealing with snakes badly. She made the mistake of cozying up to a liar, and I made the mistake of going into the garden uninformed and unprotected. What if Eve had taken a spade to the snake that day? What if I had studied Carolina snakes and worn my Wellingtons in the first place?

How do we protect ourselves spiritually? By becoming informed and staying alert; by wearing proper attire and using proper equipment. By moving fast enough but not too fast. By embracing wisdom through knowing and obeying the truth, found in the Word of God.