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  • Writer's pictureSteven Cornelius

Another Snake Story

One hot day in early July, just after my birthday rolled around, I was surprised to discover that I definitely was faster than my two older brothers. I was much smaller than them and could dart past, smack them on their big round heads as I went by and then turn on the speed, staying out of their grasp until they lost interest or ran out of gas. Occasionally, one of them would pick up a rock or something and throw it at me, but they didn’t connect very often. The ability to escape was just what a mean little turd like me needed. I could mess with them and escape before they could retaliate. Of course, if I did something really ugly, they’d wait until things around the house settled down, usually around bedtime and give me a good beating. As the summer heat ratcheted up, headed for the dog days of August, everyone grew cranky. Living in an unairconditioned house will do that sometimes.

My brothers suffered in the heat along with the rest of us. The hot sticky conditions caused their limited supply of patience to completely evaporate and caused them to quickly grow very tired of my pesky little butt tormenting them. Usually unable to agree on anything, they put their differences aside and devised a plan that was diabolical in its simplicity and meanness. After the prank unfolded, and I had time to rethink what those two had done, I had to admire them. Frankly, I didn’t think they had the smarts to come up with something that clever. So, what was their plan? It didn’t take long for me to find out. A few of us were sitting on the front porch one hot early afternoon just after eating dinner (lunch to everyone outside the south).

Momma looked over at me, “Where’s Randy and Dexter?” I gave momma such a stunned, slack jawed look, she must have felt like slapping me. I didn’t know, nor care where they were. I felt about them the same way Russian Jews felt about the Czar. They had a special prayer for him, “God bless and keep the Czar…far, far from us.” If they were away from me, I was safe. Of course, I knew the next thing she’d ask me to do, so I stood, “Okay, I’ll go find them.” I stepped off the porch and walked in a wide circle around our house and into the backyard. No luck. I started walking down toward grandma’s hoping to hear them talking and yell from a safe distance that momma wanted them. Still no luck. I stalled for a few minutes, hiding behind the chicken house before walking around to the front porch so that momma would think I’d really made an effort.

Momma gave me a questioning look…I just shook my head. She stopped shelling purple hull peas for a minute and looked down the road toward grandma’s, muttering, “Now where could those boys have gotten off to?” I’d done my part, so after getting momma another mess of peas to shell, I drifted into the backyard, tormenting our laying hens. They were my yardstick, If I could close the distance as I chased those chickens around the backyard, matching them turn for turn, then I knew my speed was good. On a good day, I could reach down and touch the top of their heads as I ran by. Looking back on it, the hens I could chase down were probably the oldest ones in our yard. They’d lost a step or two…though that fact never occurred to me until much later in life. At the time, I thought I was lightning fast, like The Flash from comic books; and even if I wasn’t, I was still faster than my two older brothers, so that was enough.

Almost an hour later, I was sitting on the front porch helping momma with yet more peas when Randy and Dexter strolled up, approaching from the side yard. Dexter gave me a big cheesy grin, which immediately put me ill at ease. Back then, he never smiled unless he’d figured out a way to mess with you. I gave them a wary look. I didn’t trust either of them and wondered what they were up to, automatically assuming whatever it was couldn’t be good. After explaining to momma that they’d gone down the hill to check on grandma, Dexter looked at me, and pointed to the back yard. I followed them around the house, my guard up. He flashed me another crooked grin, “Randy and me want to race you down the path to grandma’s. We don’t think you are faster than us, you only win because you cheat by getting a head start. This time, we’ll all start together. If you still win, we’ll milk the cows for the rest of the week. If we win, you have to go stay with grandma, empty her pot and help with everything else she wants done for two weeks.” I stood there studying my brothers. Their history of keeping promises wasn’t the best. Still, it was only a foot race. It wasn’t like I was risking money or anything else of value. I would race them, beat their asses and get on with my day.

The south side of our childhood home had four stunted fruit trees spaced about six feet apart. They made an excellent starting line for our foot race. About fifty feet further away from the house was the start of a well-worn path wending through waist high sedge grass. Eventually, the path ended across a gravel road from my grandma’s house. The red clay path had been beat down slick and smooth by a constant stream of bare feet. It was just wide enough to walk along it single file. The path began about a hundred feet away from our side yard. A hundred feet or so farther down the path, anyone walking it was hemmed in on the west side by three foot high blackberry brambles and thorny plum bushes. The east side of the path dropped off into a drainage ditch that got deeper as you went along, eventually emptying rain runoff into a small, irregular shaped pond. The thirty by fifty foot pond was choked with cattails and water lilies. I walked down that path at least a dozen times each week. Every time I drew close to the pond, I crowded over toward the blackberry vines and thorny plum bushes, afraid the pie plate sized water lilies concealed nests of water moccasins and other nasty surprises. Given my druthers, I’d rather be stuck by thorns than bit by a poisonous snake.

After a few minutes of hemming and hawing Dexter and Randy were ready to start and I was ready to call the whole thing off. It was too hot to stand around in the blazing sun waiting on them. Dexter made a big production of planting himself in the middle with Randy on his right and me on his left. This put Dexter six steps closer to the path head than either me or Randy and should have allowed him to easily beat us both. I leaned forward, glancing to my right, watching both brothers for any sign of trickery. They were famous for stacking the deck in anything they did to ensure one of them won. I was just about to walk off when Dexter yelled, “Go!” and took off, jumping well out in front of me and Randy. I quickly recovered, ran as hard as I could, and soon caught up, passing him with ease. If I had given the situation more thought, I would have realized that maybe I passed him a little too easily. I kept up a blistering pace moving well out in front. About two-thirds of the way down the quarter-mile long path, there was a sharp dog-leg turn to the right. I flew around that turn and the first thing I saw was a fat, brown water moccasin, head raised, cotton white mouth agape with wicked curved fangs exposed.

I yelled something profane, but I don’t remember what and jumped as high and far as I could. I sailed over that snake with ease, but when I left my feet, I could no longer control where I landed. I set the Alcorn County broad jump record for a ten year old and landed well past the snake but my trajectory carried me about six feet over that pond full of cattails and water lilies and who knew what else under the surface. An eyeblink later, gravity remembered I was there, took hold and I dropped like a stone, crashing through a thick patch of water lilies and cattails, hitting the water almost flat of my back. The impact knocked the breath out of me as I slid down under the water like a skinny half naked torpedo. When the cool water swallowed me up, I flinched. That water was cold! The next thing I knew, I was four feet under the water in a full blown panic. I flailed around, trying to right myself; once my bare feet touched the muddy bottom, I pushed down hard thrusting my runt sized self upward and quickly bobbed to the surface. I stood sucking in air, soaking wet in water up to my chest, spluttering and coughing, spitting out pond water, pushing all the greenery away from me. I didn’t know what kind of critters were in the pond hiding under that stuff, but my imagination conjured up images of snapping turtles hurrying across the pond bottom to snack on my tender little toes and fast swimming water moccasins mean enough to sink their fangs into my legs and hang on until I dragged them out of the water with me.

Thoughts of underwater critters gave me extra motivation to scramble up the steep, slick bank in a real hurry. The muddy bank was covered with slimy wet grass, and it was hard to gain traction. As I tried to climb, I lost my footing the first couple of times, slipping and falling hard enough to knock the breath out of me. Each time, I lay in the mud wheezing and flopping around, making so much noise that I didn’t notice my two brothers standing ten feet away, on the other side of the dead water moccasin, laughing like hyenas. At that moment, the fact that I’d been set up, hit me like a brick to the head. When they went missing after dinner, they had been down the hill killing that moccasin and staging it on the path just for my benefit. They hadn’t tried to win the race, they just wanted to screw with me. Dexter and Randy were well aware of my fear of snakes and because they usually couldn’t catch me, this was a creative way of messing with my head. As I suspected, they also had no intention of holding up their end of our bargain by milking the cows for the rest of the week either.

After one last hearty laugh at my expense, Dexter used a forked stick to toss the moccasin into the bushes. He and Randy disappeared up the path toward our house and I was left standing on a patch of slick clay, wet as a drowned rat, shirt and shorts covered with mud. I waded into the shallow end of the pond and rinsed off as best I could, but still looked rough. When I showed up at the house, trying to sneak in the back door and change clothes before being spotted, momma grabbed me and whipped my little legs and back good, using a very limber peach tree switch. She didn’t want to hear about Dexter and Randy putting a snake on the path and then baiting me until I raced them and stumbled over it. She was convinced I’d gone for a swim in the pond, which was strictly forbidden. Momma always thought the best of folks (except maybe, me…because she knew my brain never stopped thinking of mean things to do to my siblings). Anyway, I got through the rest of the week, licking my wounds while keeping myself warm thinking about the things I would do to my brothers to get even. It took a while, but I did so.

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