Writing My Way Home: Silas, Swago, and The Farm Dogs

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

I have very specific memories of the first time I ever saw certain people. It’s an odd phenomenon in that I don’t know any reason when I first lay eyes on these folks why the memory instantly becomes fixed. In each case, however, such people become important to my life. My husband is one of these “fixed memory” people. I can still see him, opening a glass door and striding across a lobby with a scowl on his face.

Silas House is a fixed memory person for me, too, but it a different way. It was not Mr. House in the flesh, but his written words that fascinated me, became fixed. His environmental column in the New York Times, “My Polluted Kentucky Home,” reads like a creative nonfiction essay to me, more so than a national column of an environmental activist. And yet I can’t fully defend that perception. It is clearly an activist’s narrative. But it’s edgy, tight with a barely contained rage. When I read it, I can feel Mr. House holding it together as it tries to bolt out his control. The emotions and the realities behind “My Polluted Kentucky Home” are so muscled and dangerous, only a master of the written word could begin to manage it.

Silas House is such a master.

I referenced the column in 2011 as an inspiration for essayists writing about place. Going back to the column, I am reminded that every section is a gut-punch. Still, the paragraph that knocked me out 3 years ago remains the one that gets me now:

As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since.

 

This physical experience of prolonged generational grief with no end in sight resonated in my heart. It took up residence there and made sense out of something, or at least started to make sense of something, that haunts me. I am a native West Virginian. My family has lived in Appalachia for generations, and I have struggled to find words for the experience of a rupture with the land that feels like a problem in my body. And it is exactly as Mr. House says it is. It’s a kind of inheritance. It was passed to me. And as in his narrative, it was not passed with intention so much as without choice. Some people call this Appalachian fatalism. I am still trying to understand what I will call it.

When someone puts words to your problem, he often shines a light on the way out. At the very least he allows you to see your problem in a new way. I wanted to know more about Silas House, and discovered his online literary publication, Still: The Journal. In this space, I found more expression of the more complex elements of Appalachia. I found images and words and ideas that reflected some of the layers that I know from growing up there. Much material on Appalachia traffics in stereotypes and simplicities. Still explicitly is not interested in stereotypes or cliches. It has a mission to illuminate what is real, and truly human, and intricate about this mysterious and hard place some of us call our native home. So I recommend Still to you without reservation, both for seeing something you may never have seen about this part of the world, and for some lovely art.

My essay, “Farm Dogs, recently received a Judge’s Choice honor in the Still 2014 Contest for Creative Nonfiction. A narrative with early drafts about literal farm dogs, this essay became something more human and more reflective of my own life’s unanswered questions. I remember sharing a draft in my MFA workshop, and someone saying, “This is great and all, but I still don’t understand why you went to this farm. Why did your family go there? What is this all really about?”

I was amazed to realize I had no answer. Back to the drawing board.

After interviewing my parents who are in their late seventies and mid-eighties, I discovered a huge hole in this story, one I’d never truly known about or understood. The interviews filled that hole, in part. Perhaps there are always spaces left open in our life stories.

And perhaps that is as it should be.

Thank you to my professors Eric Waggoner, Richard Schmitt, Carter Sickels, and Jessie van Eerden for your constructive feedback on Farm Dogs. Thank you to my MFA workshop colleagues Lara Lillibridge, Christine Roth, and Benjamin Bolger for reading and critiquing early wonky drafts of the essay. Thanks to Jeremy Jones for teaching a wonderful seminar on how to interview relatives about family history. Thanks to Karen McElmurrary for falling in love with “Farm Dogs” at first sight, even when it was just a wonky draft and full of holes. And thank you, mom and dad, for being brave enough to fill in the empty spaces in this narrative about a part of our lives. I love you.

West Virginia in Sunlight and Shadow: Writing an American Vignette

vignette (vɪˈnjɛt) – n.
1. a small illustration placed at the beginning or end of a book or chapter
2. a short graceful literary essay or sketch

I’m in good company having been rejected by Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction (see “Wooing Brevity”); nonetheless, I dream of joining that other, smaller party — the one with writers who have wooed and won some DInty W. Moore love. Brevity is where a lot of CNF types like me hang out and admire fine writing. The journal publishes writers working in the extremely brief (750 words or less) essay form.

My 750 words were bounced back about two years ago, and I can say with confidence that my work has improved since then. I have a long way to go, but when I look back at what I sent to Brevity, I see one of my most egregious writing flaws glaring back at me, the tendency to stay in my own head and talk to myself on paper. I struggle with setting, with scene, with grounding events and people in a tangible world. I am learning how to create a place that a reader can enter and experience.

In Andrea Badgley’s call for submissions on the Brevity blog, I saw an opportunity.

Andrea Reads America: A Literary Tour of the USA is Badgley’s  effort to read literature by authors in all 50 states. She writes, “I want to see the state from different points of view. Whenever possible, I would like to read authors who are native to or are longtime residents of the state they set their fiction in, for whom the land is a part of their psyche.” American Vignette is the creative nonfiction component of her journey.

My vignette is about some of my experience growing up as a West Virginian. My family spans generations of Appalachian people. I have a loyalty to the state and an affection for it despite its many flaws that is difficult to explain. I’ve blogged about my feelings and their complexities on Esse Diem before, but with American Vignette I captured some of my favorite elements from a longer work. I also tried to make the narrative more reader-inclusive — to “teach the reader something” as one of my professors said — and not be satisfied with an internal monologue that just happens to be written. The original essay had ragged emotional edges. I was in a lot of pain when I first started writing about West Virginia, and it shows in my the early drafts. Revising those drafts and consolidating them into a sharper piece helped give me closure in some ways. My experience is still there and unchanged, but it has been tempered with time. I am becoming able to reflect and engage outside of my own distress.

For me, my essay is about losing my grip on an important place. It’s about hard questions and unknowable answers. I anticipate some people might be unhappy with this vignette and think that it is unfair or unkind to West Virginia. This is about my observations, experiences, and decisions. It is in no way intended to be the final word on anything, or even the only word. I hope my essay will generate online discussion. West Virginia is complex and contradictory. At times it is an unbearable series of shouts off a mountainside, the caller waiting for a response that seems never to come.

But we linger a little longer.

(You can read my American Vignette on Andrea’s blog project here.)

Our life has beautiful moments, and they are often good enough to disguise the oppression. Maybe we are good enough to ignore it in favor of what we love.​ We ​are tied to the land, to the creeks​, to the​ sky and hills. ​We are bound by ​a birthright and burdened by a collective pain.

#MyWritingProcess

Today is my day on The Blog Tour, where writers and authors answer questions about their writing processes. My friend Suzanne Farrell Smith posted about her work last week. She is a wonderful, thoughtful, intelligent writer’s writer, and I urge you to check out her process here: http://suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/my-writing-process/

An absolute must-read is her collaborative work with Cheryl Wilder in the journal Hunger Mountain: The 7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life. I can do no better describing The Blog Tour than to quote Suzanne:

Suzanne Farrell Smith

“We writers share these things, but informally during workshops and at conferences (and, for a handful of established writers, in printed interviews), but not so much through our open-forum blogs. With the hashtag #MyWritingProcess, you can learn how writers all over the world answer the same four questions. How long it takes one to write a novel, why romance is a fitting genre for another, how one’s playlist grows as the draft grows, why one’s poems are often sparked by distress over news headlines or oddball facts learned on Facebook… “

I am an enrolled graduate student in my second semester pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) degree from West Virginia Wesleyan College; my concentration is in the Creative Nonfiction genre. You can read about my published and soon-to-be-published writing projects in detail here, Elizabeth Gaucher. My Twitter handle is @ElizGaucher.

What am I working on?

My MFA work is my primary focus right now. In my first semester I worked closely with Dr. Eric Waggoner, whose take-no-prisoners rock and roll style became a viral sensation nationwide when his essay about the Freedom Industries chemical spill appeared in The Huffington Post. This semester I am mentoring with Professor Richard Schmitt whose work, “Sometimes a Romantic Notion,” was chosen for The Best American Essays 2013. I am truly humbled by these opportunities.

I write personal essays throughout each semester, and I continue to search for the unifying element that will thread it all together.  I thought it would be experience in the natural world, but that hasn’t been it. I thought it might be some family history stories, but that isn’t exactly it either. I think I am avoiding something major, but that hasn’t shown itself. For now I keep writing and revising, waiting for the mystery to reveal itself; sometimes I think that’s all you can do, be patient and persistent and wait for The Muse to talk to you.

I am also working on my second River Town story. My first story, “They Hold Down the Dead,” centers on a 16-year-old girl named Lillian Conley who lives on the hill above the river with her wealthy family and finds herself drawn into a dangerous mystery tied to Indian legend. The story I am working on now is called “The Letter Opener.” This story is a prequel to the first and is about Lillian’s mother, Lorraine, not long after the Civil War. 

Me and River Town!

Me and River Town!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

A lot of my work blends childhood experience and spiritual awareness. I started an online publishing project called Essays on Childhood, and through that I help other writers find their voices for some of their untold stories.

I’m also digging into the experience of leaving my home state of West Virginia. I left it a long time ago to go to college and stayed gone for over ten years, but I came back. Why I did that and why I left again, for good, is the focus of some recent essays. This idea of place — what it means and why we return to it and why we let it go –fascinates me.

I’ve been told that my work is “unsentimental” and that that is a good thing. I wasn’t sure what to make of it the first few times I heard it, but then in one of my MFA seminars I heard this: Your work is sentimental when it gives the reader only one way to feel. 

I am glad I’m not doing that! That’s just plain boring.

Why do I write what I do?

This question was harder to answer than I expected; and I think it’s turned out to be very simple. I want to understand life, and I want other people to have moments of understanding and connection through my work. In a self-centered way I hope my writing will allow others to know who I am, and in the Big Picture I hope that my writing will add to a body of work that connects all of us through those recognition moments in human experience . . . those moments when you are reading and for awhile you feel less alone.

How does my writing process work? 

I do a lot on a laptop computer. When I wrote A Rebranded Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness, I went down in to my parents’ basement to do the work. In that place I could be isolated and in complete quiet. It also had the unintended but I think powerful effect of putting myself, quite literally, in a place where I lived long before I became ill. Physically being in that place amplified my feelings of loss, of grief, but also of safety and love.

a-spiritual-life1

When I was writing “They Hold Down the Dead” for River Town, I started using the cloud computing available through Google Drive. Drive touts itself as “One Safe Place for All Your Stuff” and I have found that to be true. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the terrifying world of saving my drafts on a hard drive that may or may not want to work with me tomorrow!

I need quiet surroundings to write well. I love to be alone, but life rarely affords any of us not residing in a monastery total peace, quiet, and solitude. I like to get up early before the sun and I work as much as possible when I have my house to myself.

I’ve finally given myself permission to just write without self editing as I go, crazy random “mental shenanigans” to loosen up that part of the brain that has things to say that are so often censored. Here’s a brief insight into this exercise:

What if one of the things you can never stop doing is thinking about James and the Giant Peach? And how in the library of your mind the book cover is gone and that becomes your new hallmark of a great book and there’s a guy from high school who will never shut up about some animal he trapped when you try to tell him about the greatness of this book?

It’s like he is everything that is wrong with the world and doesn’t even know it. And your coverless book is everything that’s right, this worn out old crazy book about a peach carried by spider’s or was it silk worm’s strands high, high, high above the ocean by greedy seagulls who a little boy risked his friend to trick into being snared by the silk threads.

About how he escaped his alleged family who hated him. About how even though the peach was only a peach after all even though it was giant and would one day disintegrate or be eaten like every other peach in the world, this one was giant, and carried a child to a new and luminous and distant life. I can’t stop thinking about it.

This kind of early a.m. writing puts me more in touch with the parts of my mind that want to say things I don’t usually let them say. Those subjects, when drafted and revised and shared, can be elements in the most effective stories.

Finally, there is a saying, “The best writing is re-writing.” I’ve come to see revision as an act of love for my work, not as a grueling task. I believe it is a privilege to receive readers’ feedback and to earn their honesty when something is not working. I think it’s essential to listen and respond to those kinds of things in order to grow as a writer.

NEXT WEEK

Rachael Hanel lives and writes just outside of Mankato, Minnesota. She is a former newspaper reporter and copy editor and teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, is her first book for adults. She blogs about death and grief’s role in culture at www.rachaelhanel.me. You can find Rachael on Twitter at @Rachael18.

I invited Rachael to The Blog Tour because she is a dedicated professional writer, frequent blogger, and generous with her talents. We can all learn from her self-discipline and willingness to engage and share in the writing community.

Shauna Hambrick Jones is a native daughter of West Virginia and a proud graduate of WV Wesleyan College’s MFA program. She has been published in Vandalia, Wesleyan’s literary journal; Connotation Press: An Online Artifact; and Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Mothers and DaughtersShe’s a self-described grateful wife and mother; lover of words, Texas Hold ’Em, Prince’s music, and reading in the bath until her toes are waterlogged. Connect with Shauna on her blog, Mental Shenanigans, or on Twitter, @ShaunaGJones.

I invited Shauna to The Blog Tour because she is a personal friend and we studied together in the WVWC MFA program. She also has an attraction to baring her soul through her writing. She is devoted to her work, and she takes amazing risks that pay off. She’s someone to listen to, someone to read.

Vernon Wildy, Jr., is a resident of Glen Allen, Virginia. He has published his work on sites such as Esse Diem for the Essays on Childhood, The Man Cave Podcast, Intentional Walk Review, and his own poetry blog, I Got Something to Say. He published his novel, Nice Guys Finish Last, in 2011. Connect with Vernon on Facebook via his author page, and on Twitter, @VernonWildyJr.

I invited Vernon to The Blog Tour because he understands that writers need community. Every Wednesday (just about) on Twitter he tweets a Happy Writers’ Wednesday (#WW) to his writer friends and associates. It touches me that he is so loyal and so constant in his efforts to thread us all together, even in a brief occasional social media moment. He also brought up a story about his adolescence that was painful and real and honest for the Essays on Childhood project. Read his essay, The Jersey, and get to know this authentic storyteller.


“Vacancy” — Advent Ghosts 2013

Vacancy

Raking his fingers through his hair, he paused at the temples. She was silent, eyes tight with increasing pain.

Filthy, really, where he’d sent her to finish but he couldn’t have her bleeding inside. And maybe she was a screamer. No one wanted to hear that.

His animals were circling, facing the doorway where the woman entered. He saw them from his bedroom window. He could see everything. He pulled a blanket over his head to shut out the light.

Tomorrow, that woman and whoever else was with her now had to go. He would make sure they were gone.

(Read more 100-word creepy stories from a range of writers on I Saw Lightening Fall’s Advent StorytellingCheck out my stories from previous years here.)

The World Blanches before Winter: Preparing for Advent Ghosts 2013

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2013, the fifth annual shared storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall, Loren Eaton’s blog about “narrative, genre, and the craft of writing.” For the uninitiated, Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.

Ghost Winter Flower by Henrik Thorn

To learn more about this tradition, read the article here about this “lost tradition.”

This is my third year writing for Advent Ghosts. In my first year I pulled some edited lines from a ghost story I wrote about meth addiction. It is called “The Escape.”

Last year, I decided to try Loren’s model of writing one piece inspired by secular Christmas traditions, and another from sacred texts.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

This year I am again using a sacred story in “Vacancy.” I’m curious to know if you can identify it. Enjoy this year’s submission, which will post on Friday, and if you like creepy little tales be sure to visit Loren’s blog, too! Just when I think I’ve read the most shiver-inducing tale, they get, well, more shivery!

 

Small Things in My Hand (part 3) | Elizabeth Gaucher

Oscar never changed, but his prey selection did. When he went from eating animals no one liked anyway to animals we owed cosmic reparations, it was a game changer.  A nest of baby rabbits appeared in the hollowed edge of a tree about 40 feet from the patio. Somehow they managed to live long enough to open their eyes and develop fur, though how Oscar ignored them that long is a mystery. He may have had more than enough to eat closer to the patio, and was just too lazy to slither over to the tree. The mother rabbit stayed close to her babies, and we could see her come and go from her nest. Oscar could see her come and go, too, and one day when she went, he made his move.

My mother saw this and swooped into motion as she had flown to the hutch before. The plan? There was only a goal. Get Oscar away from the babies. She grabbed a rake and snared him across the tines. From the house I could see only a wild woman with a long, surprised reptile on the end of a pole. The snake thrashed like a thick black stocking in gale force winds but my mother was undeterred. She ran with him to the edge of the woods, pulled the rake back over her shoulder and pitched Oscar with all her might over the hill toward the creek.

The obvious and naïve belief was that one can just throw a snake away. We all wanted it to be true, so we believed it. Of course, there are fewer creatures more tenacious than a snake; even the mild-mannered do not leave a place where all of their needs are met and life is good. Oscar was back almost immediately, and so began a daily dance between my mother and the black snake. What awed me most was my mother’s commitment not to kill him. She valued that snake, but he had crossed a line that she would hold, no matter how many times she had to take the fight to him. Those baby rabbits would be saved, and Oscar could go easy or he could go hard. But Oscar did not give up, and my mother eventually accepted that saving the rabbits meant they had to get out of the tree.

Wearing gloves, she took the babies and put them in a box, then carried them into the house. I remember seeing their little eyes shining like ebony beads as my mother held each one in a gloved hand and fed it some kind of milk or formula from a doll’s baby bottle. Their fur was brown, with smaller flecks of black hair. Their ears were tiny, and their little claws scratched the plastic bottle every now and then, making a soft but perceptible sound as they reached for nurture in a safe place.

Memories of childhood events are slippery. A child’s mind often clings to and obsesses on images and events that imprinted an emotion more than they imprinted a detailed fact. Sometimes we delete entire events or rub to blur the details of exactly how something resolved. I do not remember if my mother eventually had Oscar killed, though I am confident if he was terminated she did not do it herself. I do not know what happened to the baby rabbits once they left our bathtub, though I seem to have a memory of their restoration to the natural world. I do not know what happened to Lee or to the hutch, but I know the reasons why I do not make any effort to discover the definite answers to these questions.

The first is that after all this time, I believe any pieces of the puzzle that anyone else has are doubtless as worn by memory loss as are my pieces. There is a degree to which I am not even sure I have these two rabbit stories in the correct order; but I want to ignore that possibility, because even if they are not in the correct order, they are in the right order. The right order is the way we tell our life stories so that they make sense. Human beings often look to life and death in the natural world to sketch out and then paint in our most complex and unresolved stories. What is right? What is wrong? Is listening to fear a healthy way to navigate life? Are there any answers that could ever cover all of our conflicts so that we might know, with certainty, how to live in peace and harmony with the lives around us?

The human narrative tells us we are one with the world but also separate. There is something about mankind that keeps us unable to function seamlessly with the rest of God’s creation. We are forever trying to get back to the garden, but when we get there we still do not seem to know how to fit in.  It’s as if we can’t stop trying to fix something all the time, but those efforts only lead to more to fix.

We can remember, though, that we tried. And we can tell our stories until our lives make sense.

baby-rabbits

Small Things in My Hand (part 2) | Elizabeth Gaucher

Guilt and confusion tend to breed nightmares, and I started having bad dreams. I would wake up in the middle of the night unsure of when I last had been to the hutch. My eyes would open into blackness, my heart contacting and expanding with vague anxiety. It was a kind of terror that would carry into my adult life — the realization that something I’d neglected was damaged, but alive and angry. I was to blame, and that I had no idea what to do next.

One morning I decided to be brave. I crossed the screened porch, walked down the stairs onto the weedy brick patio that led to our yard. Clutching fresh rabbit food pellets and a bottle of water in my little hands, I was ready to start over. I wanted Peter and Lee to know that I did love them, that I cared for them, that I could do better and that this would be the morning of a fresh start. I wanted my fear to go away, and I hoped they would give me another chance.

I crossed the wet grass and looked closely at the hutch. Something tiny was hanging from the mesh squares on the hutch floor. Drawing closer, I saw the same random shapes reaching through the wire squares. The shapes moved. Coming around the wooden end of the hutch, I saw that the tiny things were feet. The feet were attached to legs no bigger than matchsticks. Translucent, soft claws grabbed weakly at the air in the empty space under the hutch. The legs belonged to naked babies, their blood vessels visible through skin thinner than tracing paper. Some of those vessels were leaking blood from scrapes against wire. The babies’ eyes were blue currant berries, sealed and sightless. Their ears were like tiny human fingernails, pale crescents flattened against skulls no bigger than a ping pong ball. I didn’t count them. I didn’t know how to count them, as my brain saw dozens of random creatures and then suddenly would be unable to look away from just one. It was then that I remembered Peter and Lee.

Lee was cornered and distressed; Peter stared right at me.  Some of the blood in the hutch was from his bites on the newborn rabbits. The family looked stranded. The struggling, nearly fetal rabbits knocked me out of my shock and into a flying, shouting run back into the house. “Mom, mom! There are babies! They are in trouble! Help!”

My mother had always been a person of action and I had seen her solve a lot of problems before. But even mom was stunned and still upon seeing the rabbits inside their hostile, locked world. There was confusion in the air. Peter and Lee were brother and sister. They were barely adults themselves. How could they possibly have created offspring? This was not supposed to happen. Nothing about the bloody, sad, angry scene before us made any sense. It didn’t follow the rules we had all believed were in place for us and for them. Siblings didn’t mate. Children didn’t have children. Parents don’t attack their own. Good intentions carried the day, and strong mothers could always fix things.

I think there was a rapid appearance of three cardboard boxes. Peter went into one alone, as did Lee. The babies were gently gathered in gloved hands and placed in a box of their own on an old, soft towel. My mother made a phone call to a friend with expertise in wildlife, and the news was not good. Peter and Lee were adult rabbits now, and they could never live together again. His distress at being enclosed with so many babies and Lee had led to aggression against them. Though I don’t know what happened to the tiny rabbits for a fact, I choose to believe they died on that towel. They died in a soft place, with the last touch being a loving one. They did not die caught on a wire floor.

When I think about it now I realize that there was no defined intent or purpose in bringing these creatures into our lives. We bumbled our way through checklist of steps and provisions, but that is not an ideal way to care for life. In the end we did the only ethical thing we could think of, and gave both rabbits to a neighborhood children’s museum that housed a spider monkey, a sloth, and a python. Things seemed resolved.

The first week or so with the rabbits gone was a welcome relief. I no longer had to worry about them out in the hutch on my watch, but I continued to wake up in a panic wondering how they were. I had to hope they were better off where they were than they had been with me, and yet there was a scratching at my heart that told me I could not know that for sure. I had still given up on caring for them, and the guilt was heavy on my little mind.

Peter came to a most unfortunate end when he was eaten whole by the museum python. Someone left the python’s enclosure door unsecured, and “Monty” helped himself, somehow, to a meal. I always admired my mother’s honesty with us about what happened. It was a flat and fact-based announcement: “The python got out and ate Peter. I am sorry.” My sister seemed more annoyed that my rabbit managed to avoid consumption than she did grief-stricken about Peter’s demise.

The python incident put a firm period at the end of the story, or so I thought.

Some months after Peter’s death, a black snake took up residence around the brick patio in our back yard. It was the perfect situation for him. The bricks heated up to a glorious baking warmth under the summer sun, and he could bask all forty inches of himself for hours undisturbed. My mother knew black snake in the garden was a good thing. Black snakes, or “rat snakes,” have no venom and are not aggressive toward humans. Shy and retiring, all they really want are three things. They want to lie on a rock in the sun. They want to be left alone. They want to eat small mammals.

This snake was doing well for himself on our property, and he no doubt was benefitting us as he ingested pests like mice, moles, and shrews that otherwise might have overrun our shared environment. Every now and then we would find one of his shed skins, long and lacy, lying on the patio. My mother named him “Oscar,” and she took a special pride in allowing him to co-exist with us.  When other neighborhood mothers would shudder and say, “Betty, I just don’t know why you haven’t killed that snake. It’s hideous. Aren’t you scared he’ll bite the children?” she would laugh and present a lecture on the nature of black snakes and the long list of good things they bring to any house fortunate enough to attract them. My mother was loyal to Oscar, and he was constant and true to his nature, as we all expected he would be.

Then came the day when the nature of a black snake challenged mom’s allegiance.