Chapter I: Snakes
I love to tell the story, even today; especially when the setting is just right, any situation that might be suitable for a ghost story, perhaps at a dinner party, drinking with friends, mixed company of strangers and casual acquaintances. The topic is always easy to introduce, because frankly, almost everyone has a personal scary story, an inexplicable happening from a moment in their life. The innocuous anecdotes are typically the ones told by the storytellers; it’s always that an object moved, a lost item was found, a voice was heard, or something trivial, safe that makes it easy for the narrator to broach the memory. That’s the area that my story falls within, a comical, slightly spooky yarn with no real negative consequence or conclusion; however, my sister’s story is altogether different, lasting, and according to her, terrifying.
It’s almost too easy to contend that the more serious of the two varieties of stories actually haunt the storyteller, but that’s exactly what happens. A happening that leaves such an indelible, psychic scar on the person that they find themselves either avoiding the story at all cost or inadvertently removing it from their memory altogether. My younger sister falls somewhere helplessly suspended between both scenarios, frightened not only by the sharp, horrific images of that night, but more importantly, by what it might allow back into her safe world as a wife and mother.
In her adult life, my sister doesn’t take shit from anybody; a seasoned business woman, fearless in almost every part of her life, with the exception of this strange, inexplicable memory of a night from almost thirty years ago. She’s been running from it her entire life; sleeping on my bedroom floor for nearly a year after the incident, until the family disbanded, moving from the house in quiet relief; in her high school days, demanding that everyone address her by her middle name, rather than her first (to this day, I’m one of only a few people that still call her Holly, much to her dismay); and even today, when she leaves the table after dinner if she thinks it even remotely possible that I will bring it up. Running, protecting herself like a strong woman should; running, protecting her family from a memory that is so scary that she dare not even mention it even as a joke or as passing fancy; running, protecting her older brother from things that perhaps he doesn’t remember accurately about that night, because if he did recall it correctly, he wouldn’t be so eager to talk about it.
Regardless, there are two occurrences in this story, but only one person who touched, experienced both, and that person, for better or worse, was me. I was fifteen years old, it was summertime in Texas in the late 1980s, adorned with spiked bleached hair, bangles, and tons of misplaced attitude. My mother and step-father bought a house on Lake Granbury the year before; a modest two story, home set against a rocky bluff face that stretched down to idyllic Lake Granbury, teeming with kids skiing, wake boarding to escape the suffocating Texas heat. The house included a small boat dock that set at the base of a winding, stone path that my step-father was perpetually repairing. In fact, part of our daily regiment when heading down to ski, swim, sun bathe was to carry an arm load of bricks down to whatever area he was working on – a practice both my sister and I resented.
Still, we did it, mostly out of respect for our young mother, who was love struck with her newly acquired husband, who wasn’t a bad guy necessarily, or at least not during this period of their marriage; a few years after the happening, he broke her heart completely after a scandalous affair at his workplace. Dick.
Our summers were fun, hours listening to music on that boat dock with both friends and family; as well as countless moments of early morning, late evening skiing behind the Mastercraft that cut beautiful foam lines across the glass like surface of the lake. That summer my skin turned coco brown, hair white, and legs and arms muscular from the hours of slalom skiing and knee boarding. It was also the first year I was allowed to take the boat out on my own with friends, which meant opportunities to get into all kinds of trouble. Drinking beer, smoking pot, chasing teenage girls; all the things healthy, first world boys did in a suburb of Fort Worth back then, and probably even now. My mother wasn’t stupid, and my occasional slip up would lead to a week without privileges, but as long as my infractions were seemingly innocuous then I was allowed to climb back on the horse of adolescence in all its meaningful glory.
It was an important, action packed period of time; my sister and I more than ever sensing the age gap, awkward teenage brother preoccupied with girls, music, and smoking pot, juxtaposed with pre-adolescent sister who was strong, but still innocent in only a way a girl at that age can be. She was spirited even then, the squeaky wheel of the family that demanded attention regardless of whether it was in a negative or positive light, she was perpetually at odds with our mother, quarreling over things like clothing, make up, and jewelry. That summer, she covertly purchased a single set of bright pink earrings resembling two large fishing lures that proved to be a particular source of tearful deliberation throughout the summer. Gaudy, tacky and utterly inappropriate for anyone other than a pro bass member, she sported them whenever our mother wasn’t around, bouncing up and down the path to and from the dock, whirly gigs hanging, twisting, and shining from beneath her tangled, dish-water hair. There’s a photograph somewhere in a dusty shoebox of her standing in a bathing suit, sans smile with hands on hips and those fluorescent ear rings suspended just an inch from the crest of her tanned, freckled shoulder. Defiant, not taking shit from anybody.
When I meditate, reflect hard on that summer I’m astounded that I didn’t, don’t think about it more often; a missing cat, the family dog barking at a wall, mysterious voices, horrific middle of the night happenings, inexplicable daylight occurrences, and snakes in the fireplace. Tiny, soot covered baby snakes tap, tap, tap tapping on the glass door with their flat noses, waving tiny black forked tongues. The fireplace was in the downstairs living room that separated our bedrooms, adjacent to a mud room and shared bathroom; with our own private entrance that spilled onto a back porch that led down to the dock. For two days I noticed, misinterpreted the micro vipers for a trick of light, reflection against the glass door. Finally, on the third evening while watching Late Night with David Letterman, I recognized the same familiar flash, but thought it strange since there was no sunlight to cast a reflection. Squinting, I crawled off the couch to get a better look, pressing my face inches from the glass, then, tap, tap; a tiny, triangular head with diamond eyes rose from the gray ashes to scare the living shit out of me. I screamed, recoiling across the room as fast as I could crabwalk backwards into the glow of the television. “Fuck” I gasped, goosebumps waving across my body. Nothing in the world scared me more than snakes. Nothing.
I didn’t sleep that night; still respectful enough not to wake my mother and step-father, but not equipped or adult enough to deal with removing them myself. Instead, I fled to my bedroom, carefully stuffing punk rock t-shirts into the gap beneath my door, then climbing into the cool sanctuary of my waterbed; watching, listening intently; and just as I was about to drift off, hearing the dark tap, tap, tapping of scale on glass that ultimately prevented my slumber.
All summer long, the baby gray snakes were removed, but after a day or so there would be more to take their place. My mother and her husband were perplexed; where were they coming from? Perhaps the trees that hung over the house; unlikely. Maybe the exterior door that was used to remove ash and soot; probably not since it was ascended from the ground several feet. The only other explanation was that they were entering from inside the house; from the confines of the downstairs living area that I shared with my sister. I was mortified; and although the snakes made their way into one other area of the house that summer, their presence was by far not the scariest, or most terrifying part of this story. The snakes were just the beginning.