Before I started dreaming about rattlesnakes biting me, I was friends with a garter snake who lived under my grandparent’s front porch. One Easter morning, my grandpa called me outside to see something. I was three, I think. My grandparents lived in a brand new house they had built in Spearfish, South Dakota where my grandfather was a school superintendent. The house was on a green hillside with a small creek at the bottom of the property. When my grandpa pointed to something long and narrow in the grass, I was too little to do anything but walk right up to it. It looked a little like a snake, but . . . not. More like the ghost of a snake.
“It’s a snake skin,” my grandpa explained. And he told me how snakes shed their skins, and that this one had belonged to a garter snake that lived under the porch.
I loved the idea of shedding your whole skin, and I wanted to meet the snake that had done it. So I waited and I watched. I remember sitting very still, and wishing for the snake to show itself. I have a clear memory of the snake skin, but I don’t remember seeing the snake. My mother says I did indeed see him, and I named him Ray.
Now Ray up on the porch or his shed skin in the grass was one thing. Later that year, I broke my leg and had a full cast on. I wasn’t four yet, and not so quick with the crutches, although my other grandpa, the self-sufficient rancher, taught me how to use them as soon as he got hold of me. But the day before that happened, I was carried down to sit beside the creek in Spearfish with my other grandparents. There I sat, stuck in one place because of that big old cast on my leg, and what came slithering through the grass but a garter snake, slender, green and wriggling quick.
It was too small for Ray, and its size was a problem. A big problem. That little snake was skinny enough that all it would take was one fast wiggle and it could slip into the narrow gap between my leg and the plaster cast. Then what would I do?!
Being three, I immediately threw a fit and got myself hauled back to the house. No one understood why I couldn’t see the garter snake by the creek as one of Ray’s tribe and be friends. When I explained about it getting into my cast, they insisted it would never happen. I didn’t buy it. If I could imagine it that clearly, it was possible. End of discussion.
From that point on, I was afraid of snakes. Cultural messages certainly reinforced that fear, and subsequent experiences with rattlers kept me on my toes (one even struck at me while I was walking in the alfalfa field surrounding my house in Mission, SD; hooboy, you’ve never seen a fat woman run so fast), but it was my own infant imagination that planted that seed of fear.
I wasn’t afraid of being bitten. I was afraid of a live thing getting trapped between me and something I couldn’t remove. I was afraid of it wriggling and maybe dying in there, and when they took the cast off, there would be a stinky moldering snake corpse, and I would be sad and disgusted. And scared. So scared. Of something I had liked a lot. Of life and death and moving and getting stuck.
Snakes carry heavy loads for us. We dump our most primal fears on their long backs, and off they slither, reviled and feared. But my fear of snakes is more about my fear of my own life and death, of all the things I can’t control, and all the things I’m afraid to do.
But I remember Ray. He was a good friend to a three-year-old girl, and he calls me back to a piece of my spirit from before I was afraid. I’m working hard to get all the way back.