The first snake I can remember had curled its considerable girth around the foot and calf of a man I called Uncle Jesse, though he was not my uncle. He came to visit us, being actual shirttail kin whose provenance I don’t know well. I think he was my late aunt Mary’s brother, related in that way all families seem to be when members are stuck in different places all around God’s creation. Eventually, people of a certain age in close proximity become either cousin or uncle in the general nomenclature of large families. I have many uncles and cousins whose ties go beyond blood or fear of serpents.
Anyway, this Uncle Jesse came to visit, ostensibly to see my mother and father but in reality to see my sister, who in my memories is maybe fifteen or sixteen, as I am five or six. Jesse was well into his twenties or thirties, and shirttail kin notwithstanding, I think I can say with a certain equanimity based on family legend and true story, he wanted my sister bad.
So maybe to impress her, Uncle Jesse saw this snake traversing the lawn and stepped on it. Milk snakes can get pretty big, and this one looms large enough in my memory to scare the shit out of my five-year-old self, and monumental enough for someone to have taken a Polaroid. In it, Uncle Jesse grins widely, his long hair and beard wild across his face, his hand gesturing downward as if to say see, I’m a brave man who can protect you. My sister Kim, being wise beyond her years even then, wouldn’t have anything to do with him, thank God.
Kim got married and left the house in 1978, which was also the year of a snowstorm that dumped five or six feet of snow on northeastern Pennsylvania, enough that we could jump off the top of the barn and into the snowbanks safely. The snow collapsed the rear half of our barn, the milk house and the stanchions and all sorts of fun things now gone or ruined.
Come spring, our landlord hired a man, Bud Palmer, to rebuild the rear of the barn. I don’t know whose idea it was, but he rebuilt the barn by cutting off the parts that had collapsed during the winter, leaving them lay there, and simply boarded up the back. I helped him on and off that summer, but being young I couldn’t do much, so I played with a toy bow and arrow that someone had gotten me for Christmas. Bud saw me doing this and after a few days asked Mom and Dad if he could give me something. His children were long grown and he went through his own barn and brought me three real bows and a shitload of practice arrows.
The best one, my favorite, was a red recurve Bear bow for kids, with a twenty-pound pull, and though I liked the others, I fell in love with this one. As the summer passed I got bored with things to shoot at like the new boards of the just-repaired barn or bales of hay (I always overshot these and lost many arrows in the hayfield) and resorted to milk jugs filled with water, so I could have that visceral adrenal thump of seeing something bleed without harming or killing anything.
In the ruins of the milk house and stanchions and other steel and iron remnants of the rear of the barn there were snakes. Lots of snakes, mostly garter snakes, mistakenly called gardener snakes, milk snakes, and an occasional beautiful black snake. Tip over a piece of metal and there you’d see a passel of multicolored snakes all entwined and undulant and thrusting. I waited at the edge of the concrete pad on top of a rusted stanchion and shot down at the snakes when they tried to move from their nest. Luckily, I only had five or six arrows left at this juncture of the summer.
I shot one garter snake in the tail at about fifteen feet and watched with a combination of horror and what can only be described as lust as it struggled to free itself, congratulating myself on the good shot. To hit a snake about the thickness of my pinky finger, even at that distance, was not easy. Remembering, and perverting, my father’s admonition to never leave a wounded animal, I then stepped on its back and cut off its head with my jackknife.
This was long before I learned to hunt, which is where my father’s dictum actually applies. He didn’t expect me to be killing things just to kill them and honestly, I didn’t think of myself as a killer. I had other experiences later on with larger animals and different situations that made sense of what my father said. But when I was 8 or 9 I wanted these snakes to die, so I killed them. I wasn’t conditioned to kill them; I just knew they were somehow anathema to the way I thought about the world.
I have no idea if I was thinking about the serpent from the Garden as I try to justify the actions of the 8-year-old killer in me. There’s not much I can say. Just’ put something that will kill into the hands of the unready and unwise and something living will hurt or die. You can count on it in the same way that a country boy will turn his attention from the pursuit of killing things to pursuit of women around age 14 or so. Killing and violence and pursuit are biological imperatives that some men never get past.
Worse, some of those men pervert those imperatives and become killers, rapists, pedophiles. We often pretend they can be rehabilitated by society when we know that most of them are only looking for a random weapon or a lone woman in a dark parking lot or a child straying too far from the jungle gym. I’m glad I suffered internal and awful consequences for my actions as a child. I’m glad my sister recognized the snake in the grass when she saw it.
I have not shot a bow nor killed anything in many years. I gave up hunting. I gave up the tense thrill of shooting. I’ve almost given up owning guns entirely, as the only thing they remind me of is how often the black dog wins, and how often in my nightmares I hear the hissing of snakes.
Rusty Barnes lives and works in Revere, MA, but grew up in rural northern Appalachia. He received his BA from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and his MFA from Emerson College. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in over two hundred journals and anthologies. After editing fiction for the Beacon Street Review (now Redivider) and Zoetrope All-Story Extra, he co-founded Night Train, a literary journal which was featured in the Boston Globe, The New York Times, and on National Public Radio. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and manages Fried Chicken and Coffee, a blogazine of rural and Appalachian concerns. He is the author of two collections of fiction, Breaking it Down and Mostly Redneck, and three books of poetry Redneck Poems, Broke, and I Am Not Ariel. His latest book is the novel Reckoning, and he’s busy trying to write a crime novel.