I'm thinking about a time when I was seven and walked over by a big blond boulder in full sun and looked down and saw a rattlesnake stretched out just in front of my canvas-shoed feet. I don't remember what made me stop before I stepped on the snake.
I went over to my father and brother, who were building something on sawhorses. I reported the sighting of the snake.
My brother scoffed. My father did not scoff, but he wanted proof. Later, I would realize that he brought the shovel with him; bringing the shovel suggests either that he did not want to have to go back for the shovel or he was leaning toward believing my story or both.
We three returned to the snake. I did not lead the way. The snake was still stretched out in late-Spring sun, simply getting warm. I wonder what it feels like to be cold-blooded and to have your body warmed by sun.
"I'll be a sonofabitch--it is a rattlesnake," my father said. He was wearing his carpenter's belt and white carpenter's overalls and a cap of some kind. My brother didn't say anything. I think he may have been disappointed by my accurate reporting.
My father stuck the blade of the shovel behind the snake's head and stepped on the shovel, sending it through the snake into soil. The rationale behind killing the snake was that a rattlesnake's bite can be lethal, that it at least can cause the loss of a limb by amputation (after flesh has decayed), and that therefore a rattlensnake near the house cannot be trusted to live.
I remember feeling good the snake hadn't left that spot and made a liar out of me.
I remember the crunch of the shovel and my father's calm approach. I remember we three, father and two sons, returned to our solitary lives with little or no transitional conversation. I associate the event with accurate reporting, immense boulders, a lethal snake in a relaxed pose, vindication, authority, unspoken reasons to kill animals, and fear. Let's be clear: I knew that snake symbolized death. I did not know that an anti-venom had not yet been invented, or at least not widely distributed, nor did I grasp that we were at least 60 miles from a hospital. Still, I knew rattlesnakes could kill.
My father would have carried a red handkerchief in is back pocket. Such handkerchiefs are also known as bandanas. He may have blown his nose using the handkerchief right after he killed the snake, a kind of punctuating gesture to a performance. I can't prove this. In fact, I can't prove anything about the incident as it belongs entirely to memory. One's memoirs would never stand up in court.
The snake might have bitten me, and I might have died. My body was small, so the venom would have been proportionately more powerful. But the snake didn't bite me, and I didn't die, and these words possess a reality the incident lost almost immediately. I rely on my memory, a thin reed. I don't have much choice, at least when it comes to the past. There was a rattlesnake stretched out in the sun. Believe me.