My office building sits atop a den of snakes. I’m sure of it. The building edges the campus where I work. Only an overgrown horse pasture separates the manicured lawns of higher education from the woodlands of Cumberland Mountain. The snakes slither down the mountain and somehow find their way in the parking lot or between concrete steps. They stick out their tongues to test the air, sun themselves on sidewalks. Once, when I returned from lunch, the ball of my brown Oxford grazed the head of a black snake lying so still I thought she was a crack in the sidewalk. She never moved, but I jumped high enough for both of us. Everyone in the building came out to see the snake, as if it was a new creation, as if we were children seeing the very first one. She waited patiently, completely still, while we gawked. The girls softball coach drove by just then, told us all to back away. Then, he pulled his Oldsmobile off the black-topped parking lot and down the sidewalk. The snake flailed as the right front tire crushed its middle. I imagined screams as the tire rolled back and forth. When we were sure it was dead, he pulled it off the walk with a golf club from his trunk, a nine iron, flung it out into the grass to be chopped up by the grounds crew and their lawn mowers.
A different day, one August, when I wasn’t at work, another black snake was spotted in the grass. The sun was hot, and this snake was resting in the shade of a giant catawba tree. Summer drought brought him down from the mountain’s rocky pinnacle in search of water. Two women from my office, Regina and Carolyn, found the snake. Again, the office workers emptied into the front lawn of our building to see the snake for themselves. Again, there was shock and excitement and perhaps the feeling of being intruded on by an uninvited monster. Clarence, a maintenance man, stopped to see what was happening. “Wait,” he said. He knew how to take care of this problem. Straight through the center of the black head, Clarence drove a metal stake, quick as you like. He pinned the snake to the earth until the writhing stopped. When the last breath of life escaped, someone suggested they take a picture. The photo shows Clarence, his name patch white against the blue of his uniform. He holds the metal rod in the air, and the snake dangles to the ground, five feet long if he was an inch. Regina and Carolyn stand beside of him, no longer afraid of the snake. They all smile for the camera.
“Why is everyone’s first reaction to kill a snake?” My friend Maurice once asked this at a party. It was easy to see how disturbed he was by the stories we told, the murder in our voices. How to explain to him that my own fear of snakes came to me in the womb? There was no temptation as a boy to feel scales against my flesh, to even see one slither past my path – each snake the devil incarnate, the only good one a dead one. Another friend, Donna, tells me snakes symbolize transformation. She explains that if snakes repeatedly come – as they do on sidewalks and in dreams – it means that I’m changing and growing and preparing for something new. I picture myself shedding my old life and old choices like an old skin. In writing, I’m advised to embrace my fears. Explore them. Give them to my characters. But just as if those fears were real snakes, my intuition is to give a wide berth, to avoid at all costs. The hardest things to write about are … well, they’re hard. It takes courage to embrace what scares you the most, serpents from the proverbial garden, monsters come up from the depths of nightmares. In real life, when I walk through the woods or the hay field around my home, I keep a close watch before letting either foot touch the ground. Twilight is the worst, when every twig seems to shimmer in the faint light. I fear each of them is a copperhead sliding down to the creek for a drink.
Last summer, a pair of Carolina wrens practically lived on the back porch of my house. In the mornings, they sat outside my bedroom window and served as my alarm clock. In the evenings, as I sat in the shade and read, they hopped around me, tempted to land on my open, extended palm. One Saturday, they called me with their trilling racquet to come to the back door. Between the porch and the shed where the wrens nested, there was a black snake sunning himself in the grass. This is a space where I walk daily, sometimes hourly, sometimes in my bare feet. I was pleased to live for the summer with my fat, trickster wrens, but I was equally displeased to think of this black snake joining our happy home. As a child and perhaps even a few years ago, I would have lost my mind with fear. Had he been something definitely poisonous, a copperhead or a rattlesnake, for instance, I would have still been terrified. But the years have accustomed me to seeing the occasional black snake. After that time I almost walked on one, I learned to appreciate the black snake’s gentle manners. I empathized for the thirst they must feel in the driest parts of summer, for the warmth they must ache for on the first sunny days of spring. My little Carolina wrens, brazen and full of tricks when they need to be, warned him from our home. “Go away,” I could hear them say. “We’re not afraid of you. Go!” I never admired these little birds so much as when they were willing to face off such a daunting enemy, but I took a different tact. “Hello,” I said to the snake as I looked down from the safety of my raised deck. I was cautious, but for the first time in my life, I wanted a closer look. I admired the way the afternoon light glistened across his ribboned back. “Please don’t bother the wrens,” I said, and I went back inside, leaving them to work it out for themselves. Within minutes, my curiosity was too much, and I had to go back out. I wanted to see the snake again, but he was gone. The grass showed no trace of his path, and I was both relieved and sad.
Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He works at Lincoln Memorial University, where he co-directs the annual Mountain Heritage Literary Festival and serves as executive editor of drafthorse: the literary journal of work and no work.
His poem “Reasoning with Cows” received first place in the 2012 Byron Herbert Reece Society poetry contest. Other fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachian Journal, Trajectory, Main Street Rag and in numerous anthologies including Degrees of Elevation: Stories of Contemporary Appalachia."