The first snake skin of the season appeared about six weeks ago, stretched out in a long line across the concrete of the carport in almost exactly the same spot as the one I found last year, the one I measured and looked up in the Audubon Guide to confirm its non-venomous nature. Upon spying this new one, I congratulated myself (since there was no one else there to congratulate me) on what amounted to a non-reaction, i.e., “Oh, look. A snake skin. The skin of a snake. Lying within a few feet of my back door. What a curiosity.”
And it was a curiosity, for this reptilian neighbor had been so delicate in his sloughing, had exercised such finesse in his shedding, had demonstrated such expertise in his casting off that the skin was not the least bit scrunched or wrinkled. The very tip of the tail was smooth and round and the head was perfectly shaped, including the eye caps. I bent low to inspect and it was almost as though he could still see me.
After taking a couple of photos, I had to decide what to do with the hand-me-downs. Last year’s snake skin got folded up and mailed to Aden, budding herpetologist and the owner of a western hognose named William Snakespeare. I didn’t think he needed another one. I could take it inside and put it in one of the several bowls sitting around the house containing nests and feathers and acorns and seashells, but it occurred to me that some of the geometric grandeur would be lost if the skin were simply rolled into a coil and left to gather dust. Somewhat reluctantly, I threw it into the trash can.
Over the next few weeks several live, non-disrobing snakes made their appearance. The first was driven from the cool spot under the hydrangea bushes by the spray of the water hose dangling over the deck railings. I watched from distance and height, with interest but dispassion, as he undulated with enviable speed across the carport to the patch of ivy that grows along its outside wall. A few days later the second was, apparently, startled by the vibration of the car pulling in and darted from the same cool spot up the back steps to a tiny spot where the brick foundation and HardiePlank are less than perfectly flush and slithered his way into crawlspace. This observation was, admittedly, less disinterested and more passionate, but I managed to convince myself that the darkness under my furniture and feet was what the snake wanted and, even if he could find a way through the subfloor, he would choose to remain in an environment more conducive to his survival.
I was, by this time, more than just pleased with myself. I was proud. But if there is one thing I remember from all those years of Sunday School it is that whole business about pride and resultant destruction, a haughty spirit and the inevitable fall. I was, obviously, headed for a fall.
It was still daylight when I got home. I gathered up my purse and briefcase and made sure I’d picked up my phone from the console of the car. I got to the bottom of the steps and stopped. Frozen still. Dead still. Catatonic still. There on the steps was another snake skin – actually half a snake skin – hanging out of the secret entry into the crawlspace.
I couldn’t tell at first if the shedding had been completed, if there might be, in fact, a snake still inside, still wiggling and squirming and rubbing himself against the other side of the brick trying to free himself from the old skin. I couldn’t tell if I was standing within inches of something alive or something dead.
It took probably three minutes of absolute stillness to convince me that the creature that had once inhabited the skin was long gone. It took three days before I could make myself get back out there and pull the skin out of the crack. It took three days to figure out what had happened: I’d been perfectly fine with the live snakes that I knew were alive, perfectly fine with the dead skins that I knew were just dead skins. What I had not been perfectly fine with was the uncertainty. Uncertainty had left me paralyzed. It was in the middle place of neither alive nor dead that I found myself powerless.
I wish I could say that I’d never been to the middle place, but the truth is that I have. I’ve even set up camp a time or two. But it’s never been so much fun that I wanted to stay. Sooner or later I always figure out whether the snake/relationship/opportunity has a pulse or that what I’m seeing is just a souvenir of what the snake/relationship/opportunity used to be. Sooner or later. And I get to choose.