Sidewalk surprise

Sunny May afternoon. Warm, lazy. Neighborhood moderately quiet but for the occasional baby-like cry of young goats from a pen hidden in a snatch of mixed-woods across the street. They sound like little kids … which is exactly what they ARE …

Absolutely nothing is happening.

I will check the mail.

Again.

Patches of thick, furry moss nestled in the wide brick steps of the porch. Clean fragrance of mulch from the empty beds along the house. Sudden coolness on rounding the corner, where the sun casts the shadow of the house across the sidewalk—

Snake.

Right in front of me, in my immediate path. If I hadn’t been looking down …

Two steps backward.

I am not a fan of snakes.

It’s little. The second of its kind I’ve seen. The first one appeared on this sidewalk months ago, belly-up, dead, when the old boxwoods were pulled out. I needed to know what kind of snake it was, so I researched it: Smooth earth snake. Lives in woodsy debris, usually underground (technical term: “fossorial”). Nonpoisonous. Very shy.

—This one isn’t moving at all. Is it dead, too?

—Do I really want to know?

I do.

Two steps forward, leaning over as far as I dare.

Almost imperceptibly, its sides rhythmically expand and contract.

It is breathing.

I have never seen a snake breathing.

But I don’t usually get close enough to determine such.

I wonder if it is scared of me.

I won’t harm it. This is a living thing, lying here on my sidewalk, breathing rather hard for a snake, I think.

It won’t harm me.

We’re just occupying the same shadow, breathing the same air.

I can see a dark lump through its translucent beige-gray skin, about halfway through its body. Is that part of the snake? Or something it ate?

Then …

I don’t expect anyone to believe this. I’m not completely sure that I do.

I hesitate to say. It sounds crazy.

But…

A little light flickers inside the snake.

Just for a second or two.

A fluid-like glimmering, mid-snake, very near that dark lump.

—Am I dreaming?

I stare, unblinking, not sure I trust my eyes or my brain. Have I ever even heard of such a thing?

And then, one more glimmering of light, faint, in the tail region.

I did see it.

Twice.

Is it just a reflective shimmer of sunlight?

But this snake lies wholly in the shadow of the house; the sun’s not shining on anything close by.

A reflection of something I am wearing, then?

But I am wearing no rings, no glittery flip flops. Only one fine, rose-gold chain on my right arm that I never remove (my son gave it to me), and it’s wholly in the shadow, too. Not catching the sunlight. Not casting it.

Furthermore, the glimmer came from inside the snake. It radiated only within the confines of its motionless body. Not on the sidewalk. Nowhere else.

—A trick of my eyes, then.

But my optometrist has never seen anything amiss with my eyes. Got a fabulous report at my last checkup in December: “No change in your vision. Everything looks great. See you next year!”

A migraine for me begins as a spot of light in my eyes; it grows until I can only see the outer edges of things.

But I don’t get migraines often, and am not getting one now.

Nor, to my knowledge, have I ever had a hallucination.

—I shall need proof, then. A picture.

My phone is in the house.

Stepping backward, I ease to the corner of the house, out of sight of the snake (well, at least until it’s out of my sight. Snakes don’t see well). I make a run for the porch steps, the front door, the bedroom where my phone is charging.

The snake has not moved by the time I return.

I wait for the longest time, phone poised, cued to video, but the glimmering doesn’t come again. I record a few seconds of the snake breathing. Zoomed, of course, from a comfortable distance.

Absolutely nothing is happening.

So I walk way around in the grass, giving the snake a wide berth. Short jaunt down the driveway to the mailbox, retrieving uninteresting, unimportant ephemera.

Back up the driveway to the sidewalk …

—The snake is gone.

Where?

—There in the mulch, just ahead of where it had been.

I try for several minutes more to capture some glowing, any glowing, on video, but the phenomenon is over. Whatever caused it has apparently conspired not to do so again, certainly not for one wishful human.

I do, however, get a bit of video of the snake’s tiny black tongue flickering — from a safe and comfortable distance.

I wonder if any neighbors have spotted me, if they’re wondering what in the heck I am doing, hunched over for so long here in my yard. But there’s nothing really stirring outside except those goats in their secluded pen, a meandering bee, birds in the distance, a random, rusty cock-a-doodle-doo from the rooster who lives up the street, as, in his mind, anything with ears to hear needs reminding he’s king of all times of day, not just the morning.

I have troubled this shy little snake enough. Time to let it be. Live and let live.

Trudging up the steps to my porch, wonder and hesitation stir my soul: I will write about this. I think. Or should I? How can one explain the inexplicable? How can one know what is really real? When “I saw it with my own eyes” isn’t exactly enough to drive away doubt? What about logic: Have earth snakes ever been known to glow? Is there a plausible scientific explanation? Bioluminescence is a real thing. In some eels, for example. Fireflies. Glow worms. Perhaps my snake ate one of these larvae—? Might that be the dark lump in its midsection? Perhaps some released phosphorescence traveled through its body, which is just transparent enough to reveal it. Or maybe this is a defense mechanism? A means of survival for a thing that usually lives underground? Did it ingest some compound in the soil that might give off a glow? Or did this snake simply, literally absorb some sunlight?

All I know is that I saw a light glimmering inside a rather translucent little earth snake. Twice. And that I am unaccustomed to seeing random light running along anything in shadows.

Not physically, anyway. Metaphorically I see light in the shadows all the time.

I sit rocking in my new porch chair. My thoughts sway back and forth, rolling over and over and over like paper in the wind … and I realize that my questioning awe is tinged, the tiniest bit, with something like sadness: I am not likely to ever see this again, let alone prove that I saw it. Some things are once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, one-shot-only golden glimpses, like the eagle I saw last spring, sitting huge and majestic by the side of the road. Not that I want to encounter another snake (any more, I am sure, than one wants to encounter me). No. Still not a fan. Not aiming to be a herpetologist. Although I could contact one and ask if earth snakes ever glow … what’s the risk, other than skepticism and dismissiveness?

I just want to know why. That is all. And am having to accept that I likely never will.

That glimmering … if nothing else, it means Aliveness. The little snake is alive. I am alive. For one moment, maybe, the life force acknowledged and honored itself …

For all I know, the snake saw the same glimmer in me.

Maybe.

Of the earth

Midway through lunch, the din in the cafeteria is too much. The new boy brings his tray to where I’m standing:

Can I sit here at this table?”

It’s an empty table, save for my phone, closed laptop, electronic entry key, all the things I carried with me because I didn’t have time to put them in my room before this daily duty.

I consider his brown eyes, looking up at me. Pleading.

I consider his boisterous classmates and the seat he left behind.

“Are you moving yourself here because you feel it’s a safer place for you to be right now?” I ask.

He nods.

“All right. That seems like a good choice.”

His face breaks into a grin. He sits.

And the questions start: What kind of phone is that? Do you have a dog? Do you like Doritos? What kind do you like best? What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you, twenty-nine? Forty? Older?

How old are YOU? Eight? Did you move over just here to ask me all these questions?

He just smiles and takes a swig of his strawberry milk.

Then:

“Mrs. Haley, what’s your favorite snake?”

“What? My favorite SNAKE, did you say? Yikes—I don’t …”

Of course I am about to say I don’t like any snake whatsoever, but something in his expression stops me. “Um, do you like snakes?”

He nods. “I like pythons.”

Heavens. I refrain from telling him about a man I saw on the news this week. He happened to find a boa constrictor in his couch and had no idea how it got there or from whence it came.

He’s watching my face. A keen observer, this child. He’s waiting for my response.

I could say I like green snakes, but I don’t. I could say I like black snakes because my granddaddy said they eat rats and mice, so don’t ever kill a black snake. I think about the copperheads Granddaddy killed on the dirt road where his barefoot grandchildren ran in the summertime. I think about the coiled baby water moccasin I found in front of the kitchen cabinets when my first son was just three, and I how I was about to pick it up, thinking it was an odd piece of rope . . . until I almost touched it. And saw its eyes. Or that time I was cleaning the attic and discovered a complete shed snakeskin; I nearly knocked a whole new exit in my ceiling, trying to scramble out of there . . .

I DO NOT LIKE SNAKES.

But this boy with the strawberry mustache is waiting. His eyes are shining.

And then I recall a little creature lying across my sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. So little that I thought it to be a large worm at first; it was the same pale tan. I noted a faint pattern of scales on it. Could it be a snake? I looked it up. It was. “Smooth earth snake.” They are shy; they live mostly in the dirt around trees and bushes. I’d just had all the old bushes around my house pulled up. Apparently this little fossorial serpent was disturbed, or even damaged, as the equipment pulled away deep, tangled roots. For whatever reason, it crawled out in the open only to die there on the sidewalk. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to get to safety.

—Poor little snake. The only one I’ve ever mourned.

I look at the boy. He’s new here. He’s been uprooted.

Perhaps he did come to this table for safety, after all.

Even as I begin to speak, I think of earth and geosmin, the organic element in soil that humans can smell to something like the trillionth degree (we can detect one tablespoon in three Olympic-size swimming pools) and why that should be, unless it’s because we were meant to live close to the earth, that we came from the earth, and to the earth we will return. A curious kinship with that little snake. With all living things.

“My favorite snake is the earth snake. It’s very small. Have you heard of it?”

He wants to see a picture, so I do a search on my phone just as it’s time for classes to clean up and go outside for recess. To run, to play, to breathe the fresh air, to enjoy being children . . . how well I remember.

The silence in the cafeteria now is too much.

Photo: Smooth Earthsnake. Cygnus921. CC-BY