How My Pet Snake Taught Me to Really See

These were the years of Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules, Lucy Lawless’s Xena and renewed popular interest in Greco-​Roman mythology generally, which became my fourth obsession. My mother recorded their exploits so that on weekends I could watch the demigods play policemen to the ancient world. Childhood has a way of alchemizing disparate information into wonder, and the association of snakes and mythology redoubled and complicated my devotion to both. When they weren’t merely monsters for Hercules to slay, snakes, it seemed, were supposed to denote something beyond themselves — temptation and sin, of course, even death itself, but also the exhilarating oddity of life. What were these limbless organisms, so foreign to me, lurking in the forests and fields of Mississippi? If cottonmouths swam through our lakes and rivers, what else might be hiding there?

Woohoo did not answer these questions. He wound around my wrist, hung in the air, pulled himself up and into the arm of my shirt, through which he slithered until he decided on another opening, the neck, from which his head emerged, and then his forked tongue, darting out, shaking, tasting and retreating into his mouth. I gave his cold blood my heat and flexed hello to his constrictions. My fingers followed the grain of his scales down his undulating length, which grew to four feet from 10 inches as the years passed, its colors freshly radiant after every shedding.

He thrived in the classroom. My mother would pack Woohoo into a purple-topped travel-size terrarium and drive him to the elementary schools where she taught in Jackson, Miss. There she showed off his dun skins, collected in Ziplocs, and fed him thawed white mice. Her students watched him open his jaw and slowly pull down the rodents inch by inch, one by one, his eyes bulging until he muscled each mouse past his head and deeper into his body, to be crushed and digested. After he finished, the braver sort extended their hands, yanked them back, shrieked, reached out again and succeeded, stroked him, traced his spine. They loved him as I did when I first announced his name: out of giddy reverence for his physical capacities, for his embodiment of an animal they had otherwise encountered primarily as a moving image, metaphor or roadkill.

The snake is as much symbol as animal, and this oversaturation of meaning prevents us from seeing the snake clearly. In reality, they are gentle, healthful to the environment, “more scared of you than you are of it,” a sort of tragic hero of the ecosystem that is, when gazed upon without malice, beautiful. I might argue that the contemplation of a snake qua snake, of Woohoo wrapped around my forearm and gliding toward my palm, delivers us past, for a moment, our paralyzed understanding of things and into a configuration of mind from which we might briefly remember how much of what we know is sculpted air and rumor, and how much direct experience of an animal, of any thing, might open our eyes to new possibilities of interpretation or, better yet, to the possibility of resisting interpretation altogether. Perhaps we might let the weight of meaning slip away, revealing only coiled matter. Long and lithe, complexly imbricated, strange: Here is contact. Let it grip you. With your fingers, touch its scales.

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