How to insult a snake Summer screeps: A cricket invasion was bad enough, but tree-climbing, egg-stealing snakes were almost the last straw for country loving people.

March 03, 1996|By Sarah M. Hartmann

AT MY HOUSE, everyone is longing for summer -- well, almost everyone. To me summer equals ungodly heat, humidity, and a surplus of creepy-crawlies. Like snakes. And last summer was a very snakey summer.

Truth is, where we live, summers lean toward the lively. Back in the inferno of 1988, it was miserable for people but just peachy for crickets. The hotter and drier it grew, the more they multiplied, leaping with abandon through the fields, around our house and, of course, into our house.

So, while my husband worked and my newborn snoozed, I would kill crickets. It became an obsession. Daily, I'd grab the broom and march downstairs, determined to put an end to the incessant chirping. I got good at it too, considering how spry the little buggers can be. You think you have them in your sights when suddenly they spring backward, sideways or most horribly, straight at you.

But I wised up fast and learned to fake them out. Looking one dead in the eye and pretending to ignore the 15 others slinking behind me, I'd raise my broom, make a feint toward the supposed victim, only to spin around at the last moment and decimate the slinkers before they knew what hit them. After 30 minutes or so, I'd sweep them up into little dead-cricket piles and repair to the upstairs, pleased with the new-found silence.

My work was coming along nicely until I mentioned to my husband, one evening, that it was probably time to clean the basement. "I've been killing crickets," I explained as I crunched a tater tot.

He eyed me skeptically, but because I was still at the sensitive point after childbirth when everyone humors you, he grabbed the broom and merely muttered when I handed him the large box of plastic trash bags.

I guess I don't need to describe what happened next. Suffice it to say that soon after we were regular pest-control customers, my days of cricket-bashing effectively terminated.

Since then, our trusty pest patrol has toned down a lot of lively summers. But snakes have always been around, and last summer I should have guessed that they were planning something big.

It began innocently enough with a milk snake in the basement, a garter snake in the shed. We were philosophical about it: People who want to be surrounded by flora have to accept some fauna. So, when we noticed a particularly large black snake on our front lawn one morning, we smiled indulgently.

With open-minded curiosity we watched it slither through the grass toward one of our maples. "Gee," I pondered aloud, "it isn't going up the tree, is it?"

"Nah," answered my husband, "black snakes don't climb trees."

With that, the beast slid up the tree like greased lightning, disappearing into the foliage.

Soon after, I began noticing snake skins shed here and there: beneath the chicken coop, over a basement pipe, under my living room chair -- that one gave me pause. I even called a snake expert who assured me that a true snake infestation would not be nearly so subtle.

And he was right. Brazenly, they began to show their hand. My husband had just begun cleaning the coop one day when my daughter burst into the kitchen, breathless:

"Mommy! Daddy needs some garbage bags. There are three big black snakes in the chicken house -- and no eggs."

I reached the coop in time to see my husband hovering on the threshold, armed with a garden rake and a length of battered insulated piping. The plan: Stuff one end of the pipe with a bag, muster the nerve to approach the intruders, and to use the rake to encourage them to take refuge in the pipe.

Convinced it wouldn't work but would be worth watching, my daughter and I stepped back and giggled nervously. No sooner had he waved in front of them, than each snake slipped inside as if charmed by an Indian fakir.

I watched in admiration as he hiked up the field and into the woods where he would set the snakes free to find a more suitable home.

That evening I fearlessly entered the coop, counted heads and exited. When the door wouldn't close, I used some muscle and gave it a mighty tug, figuring it was warped. Stubbornly it sprang open.

Then I knew. Slowly, I looked up. There, draped over the top of the door, dangling inches above my head was a huge black snake, and I had to assume he wasn't happy being used as a doorstop.

Crazed with fear and fury, I slammed the door on him a couple more times and watched him plop to the floor where he slid under the steps, a permanent hitch in his get-along.

The rest of the summer was a battle for control of the coop. Gingerly, I would enter, always ready to beat a hasty retreat. I never knew what I'd find. Some days it would be a snake in a laying nest; on a bad day there'd be three or four of them writhing around each other promiscuously or grinning wickedly as their necks bulged with stolen eggs.

I gave up on eggs, and our chickens gave up half their home to their pushy houseguests. In a state of denial, we proceeded to ignore the snakes and paint the coop. I don't know what prompted him to do it, but along with the coop my husband decided to slap a coat of latex on the tail of each and every snake he ran into. According to him, they left in a hurry, evidently miffed at the insult. They never returned.

We've been enjoying eggs for breakfast for a while now, but summer is just around the bend. We're stocking up on paint.

Sarah M. Hartmann is a free-lance writer who lives in Randallstown.

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