In June I thought it was a shoelace, a long one from someone's sneaker, something once white but now dirtied, well-worn and tossed by an inconsiderate tenant from one of the balconies overlooking The Run. It was resting in the grass, pale and fragile, like a frozen wisp of smoke or a thin piece of onion paper, moist from the morning dew and curled upon itself, draped across our trail a little too carefully to be something randomly tossed from above, looking instead like something almost arranged. Duncan and I saw it at the same moment but he was a little quicker to lean in and investigate. It was only when his nosed touched the thing and he jumped back as though he'd received a sudden shock, ears and tail down, his body shrinking in upon itself, that I knew what it really was, a snake skin.
I am not what you'd call squeamish. Bugs don't really bother me, unless, of course, I discover them crawling across me or when someone points and tells me there's one on my back where it can't be seen or easily reached. Mice and other rodents have always fascinated me. In fact there was a long time in junior high and high school when I kept gerbils, sometimes a cage of as many as ten if the two original occupants decided to start a family. Even the bats that fill the skies above The Glen just after the sun sets haven't really troubled me. But snakes? Snakes are another story. Yes I know they are here and that they are mostly harmless, but I don't have to like it one bit.
It was only the skin and nothing to be afraid of, but it's head was pointed in the direction of the tall grass on the edge of the golf course immediately to our right and the narrow impression in the wet grass that headed in the opposite direction, toward the heavy shadowy hiding places of the bushes to our left told me that its previous resident was still quite nearby. It had come from the golf course, molted quickly and was now resting nearby, moist and soft, its new skin drying while it watched us, tongued tasting the air around us. With my heart racing irrationally and my whole body tense and ready to jump back if need be, I leaned in to study it, bent down low to see the big, pearl-shaped places where the eyes had been, the curling onion-skin folds of its mouth. It was nearly complete and without any breaks in its mottled surface and when I steeled myself to touch it it seemed soft, like dandelion fluff, and very, very fresh.
It was the first indication I'd seen of a snake in the four years we've lived here so I stepped over it and continued on our way but for several weeks afterward it stayed in my mind and where I'd once found myself watching for bunnies and squirrels and even Jeffrey's stray cat, I now found myself considering snakes, lurking in the depths of the bushes where Duncan bounded and played and snorted. But as the summer progressed and no further signs appeared I forgot all about it.
Until this afternoon.
And then there it was again, except that this time it was dark gray, as fat as a hot dog, with black markings running up and down its body––a little less than three feet in length––from the sleek head to the narrowest tip of its tail. It was resting in the same spot the skin had been three months ago, its body bent in the middle as though caught in the act of pushing itself forward. My foot hovered inches above it, frozen in the air about to come down, in the soft, squirming middle of the thing. I thought it was a branch from the elms above. The ground was littered with them from our windy nights. Most still held a handful of refugee leaves that had only just begun to change colors. This one, though, was smooth and shiny and leafless, without a knot on it. My heart gave a tremendous leap and I backed away. Dunc was still a few yards behind me, nosing along the fence for signs of intruders or would-be usurpers to his territory, and hadn't spotted it yet. He'd only had one other encounter with a snake and that ended with him also mistaking it for a twig, something to be carried in his mouth and played with. I took a step toward the thing and tapped my foot near its head, striking the ground four or five times, half expecting, half hoping, it wouldn't move, that its lifeless body could be something kicked under the fence where we wouldn't have to think of it again. But it wasn't lifeless and the last time my foot came down it gave a great heave, its narrow head leaving the ground and turning in my direction for only a moment, before it thrust itself forward and slid into the shrubbery a foot away. I jumped back, every nerve in my body alive and fired up. And then I felt something brush the back of my foot, leaped up and turned around, a cry in my throat, the sound a cross between the gasp of a little girl and the shriek of a cat in the night. But it was only Dunc, dumbfounded and startled by my reaction. I breathed a sigh of relief, patted him on the head, watched him sniff suspiciously in the grass where the thing had been only moments before and then move on.
It took a few seconds, but with one eye on the shadows under the bushes and one on the happy tail of my dog, I made it the rest of the way.
Perhaps there is reason to look forward to the coming winter after all.