Gabby Garter

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Before I encountered Gabby, I didn’t like snakes. It might be more accurate to say that I hated and feared them. My attitude was not unique; indeed, I think that it is a repugnance shared by most of humanity. Thinking about this makes me wonder whether our aversion dates back to Eve’s encounter in the Garden of Eden; or perhaps, there is something about the secretive slithering snake that triggers an innate human hatred. I like to believe that my reaction was rational, telling myself that it was founded on the simple acknowledgement that some snakes are poisonous.

It all began one balmy evening with a full moon flooding our garden in eerie beauty, and Dan, my husband, and I stood together admiring the serenity and loveliness of the night. Then, Dan decided to pop into our garden to adjust one of our solar-powered night lights. He wanted it to better highlight our pond feature. Instead of doing what he intended he immediately came back to the house to get me. I joined him. The night was beautiful and carried the aroma of jasmine. I paused to enjoy the moment, but Dan was hyped up and urged me down to our small concrete patio. That is when I also saw the snake. It was about three feet long and, in a gruesome way, attractive with a distinctive pattern on its body. Curiously, it was almost inert and made only a slight movement when Dan tickled it with a stick. The sight overwhelmed me with irrational fear and loathing. I turned to look at Dan as he aimed his ubiquitous mobile phone and took a picture.

“Look at its segmented tail. It’s a rattler.” I said. I shook with fear thinking how it could easily turn and strike with a venomous bite. “You have to kill it!”

By now both our hearts raced, and Adrenalin flowed. I regret to report that Dan took a gardening spade and slaughtered that snake by pinning its head to the concrete. It struggled for a while. When we deemed it to be dead Dan scooped up its body with his spade and tossed it in a long-arced projectile into the greenbelt behind our house for the ants to finish off.

Now that the crime was over, we felt a tinge of remorse about our destruction of life and retreated to our home office. We Googled the image. We discovered that it seemed that we had murdered a harmless garter snake not a rattler. We felt guilty and tried to rationalize that the two species have similar markings. We read on that garter snakes are beneficial to humans as they kill rats and mice. This knowledge triggered an “ah ha” from us as we recalled a reduction in the rat menace which plagued our garden shed. We also observed that there were fewer frogs croaking their mating songs at night after rain. To lessen our shame, we told ourselves that the next time we would be less hasty and more tolerant.

Fate tempted us for two days later we spotted a much larger, similarly-marked, snake who quickly glided into our garden shed and disappeared down a drainage pipe. A few moments later she put her head out and looked around. Our Googled authority told us that female garters are larger than males, and average about three feet. Our female, who we instantly named Gabby, was even longer. I’ve observed that most people over-estimate the length of the snakes they encounter and assume this to be a human frailty in direct response to fear. However, in Gabby’s case, I do not exaggerate, she was a giant snake at four to five feet in length. As we first saw her in early May, I assumed that she had just been impregnated, probably by her recently murdered spouse. I speculated that he was sluggish that night after a session with Gabby. I consoled myself with the speculation that he died happy.

Garter snakes, and incidentally, rattlers are ovoviviparous. This means that their eggs hatch internally, and they give birth to as many as 98 babies. I read that pregnant snakes are hungry so, a day later, when I dug up a fat bug chrysalis instead of ejecting it into the greenbelt, I placed it in front of Gabby’s drainage pipe. When I returned to put my spade away the chrysalis was gone. The following day I went through the same routine with a similar result. The next time that I went to the shed to retrieve a spade Gabby poked her head out of her drainage pipe. She looked at me as if asking for her food. I quickly went into the garden and dug up a couple of earth worms in our compost pile. When I returned, there was Gabby expectantly semi-emerged from her home. She took the worms from me with a swift strike.

Over time, Gabby and I struck up a friendship. I’d feed her morsels from my gardening exploits, and she became increasingly friendly until she took to accompanying me into the garden so that she could recover her spoils as they were unearthed. Our garden has stone strewn paths, which appeared to annoy Gabby so one day she slithered up into my wheelbarrow and rode to our destination. I wasn’t exactly pleased by this development as I generally load the wheelbarrow with tools and garden refuse. By now, Gabby was even larger and sported a rattler-like tail just like her murdered spouse. Seeing it gave me a sense of justification for our nocturnal killing, for surely it was a reasonable mistake. Every day Gabby became more one of our family and less garden snake.

One day when we had heavy rains, I worried about her home in the drainage pipe and delivered an abandoned dog basket complete with blanket to the shed. Gabby examined it with her mouth open to better use her vomeronasal organ. The smell must have pleased her for she thanked me by twisting her long body around mine before slinking into the basket and curling up in the folds of the blanket.

Unfortunately, Gabby gradually became discontented with her garden role and began to follow me to the house. She attempted to enter by stealthily moving between my feet when I opened the door. I turned and chided her, “NO” even though I know that snakes have limited hearing. On the first few occasions, she accepted my instruction, but one hot summer day when we had torrential rains in the form of a blown-out stalled hurricane Gabby came to the glass patio door and rapped on it with her head. The noise of the rain and the storm made noises difficult to decode, but I thought that she made a noise like the rattle of old bones. I did not open the door.

Summer was coming on when Gabby encountered the man who came to read the gas meter. He knocked on my door,

“Lady, you have a huge snake out there. It looks like a rattler.  I can’t read your meter.” The man was trembling.

“Oh, no Gabby is NOT a rattler,” I said “she is a harmless, and beneficial, garter snake.”

“I don’t know,” said the man as he shuffled from one foot to the other, “I just can’t read a meter with that THING lurking around. It’s just not proper!”

I realized that the situation was getting out of control, and worried that Gabby might not integrate well with visiting grand-children. I decided that, although we had something special in our relationship, it had to end. “After all,” I told myself, “Gabby is only a small-brained snake.” So, I lured her into my car and drove five miles out of town to an entry into the Barton Creek Greenbelt where I dumped her. I told her that it was for her own good, and that she was better off out here where no-one would mistake her for a rattler and put her life in danger.

Five days later Gabby reappeared. This was serious, for she appeared hurt and angry. She reared her body up outside our glass garden door and rattled her tail. I was terrified and called the local animal rescue group who, due to Gabby’s great size agreed to “adopt” her for one of their displays. When they arrived, they confirmed that Gabby was a poisonous rattler not a harmless garter snake. I did not watch the capture.

A week or so passed and I went to visit her in her new surroundings. She seemed lethargic and looked mournfully at me though the glass. She died a few days later.

Rattler – a short story

After David and Judith tucked their two granddaughters in bed, Judith searched the internet for information about Rattlesnakes. She was happy to find that their rented Spring Break condominium had internet. Soon she was on line and able to learn that there are many varieties of rattlesnake, including ten different species in Texas alone. She read that the Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox) is the snake credited with most of Texas’ serious cases of venom poisoning. Her research seemed to indicate that this was the snake to which the signs next to their beach access path on Mustang Island referred.

“Beware Rattlesnakes!
Do not walk in the sand dunes.
Stay on the boardwalk.”

The next morning a sea fog greeted them as they stood on their third floor balcony gazing at what should have been a beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico. They could see the boardwalk gently climbing over the dunes but, at its apex, all they could see was white fog. It silhouetted the grasses and plants on the top of the dunes but completely masked the ocean beyond. They could hear the roar of the waves mingled with the call of seagulls, and smelled a salty wetness in the air; but otherwise they could have been anywhere. The girls were ready for adventure, so they were soon walking the boardwalk toward the shore. Judith made sure that everyone read the rattlesnake sign and added her own warning that rattlesnakes are not to be trifled with.

They played on the beach all morning. David dug a hole and Judith and the girls sculpted the pile of sand, which he created, into a ‘sea monster.’ No one was sure what a sea monster might look like on the beach but they had to admit that it bore a remarkable resemblance to a crocodile. By lunch-time a sea breeze had blown up and the fog was gone but it was cold on the shore so the girls asked to swim in the condominium’s heated outdoor pool.

Hours later, when they returned to the beach, someone had reworked the sea monster into a magnificent sand sculpture of a snake entwined around a sand castle. Its head at the apex had an exaggerated carved eye which convinced Judith that the sculptor was a real artist. The girls rushed up to destroy the sculpture. Judith intervened, she said that she liked its art and pleaded with them to leave it unspoiled. For some strange reason she saw it as an embodiment of Moses’s carved snake on a pole used to prevent death from snake bite among the traveling Israelites.

Instead, they played ball, sometimes kicking the ball close to the dunes,

“Don’t get too close to the dunes,” warned Judith, “I don’t want anyone to venture into the dunes.”

“It looks OK to me.” said David; but he still remembered his own encounter with a rattler of almost fifty years ago. The event was as vivid to him today as on the day that it happened. Although he knew that the story was not new he had to tell it. He derived vicarious pleasure in the narration.

“One college summer vacation, I worked on a road crew. It was hot dirty work! But that’s what you did back then!” David nodded at his audience to make sure that they were listening. They nodded back; they knew the tale verbatim. “As I was saying; hot, dirty work. One day I was walking through the desert scrub when I almost stepped on a basking ratter. I heard a hollow sound like the dry rattle of old bones. It was the rattler’s tail. Just in time, I looked down and saw a huge snake poised in a strike position”.

“How big, how big?” asked the children. They knew that the rattler got bigger with each narration.

David stretched his arms wide, “Oh about this, maybe six feet long. So, I looked down and saw a huge snake poised in a strike positon. It must have been yea long – perhaps six feet and fat!  I froze with one foot aloft. While I balanced motionless on one leg I stared ahead and tried to avoid its eyes. For a long time the snake and I remained motionless. There was no sound except the scary rattle of its tail. Then it dropped its head and just slithered off into the adjacent grasses.”

The two grandchildren knew the conclusion to David’s story and now both stood on one foot nodding with serious faces. Judith watched the children. She wondered what they were thinking. Her nocturnal research had told her that the best defense against a rattler is immobility just as David had done. She hoped that should either of the children meet a rattler they would act likewise.

The next morning was windy with a clear sky and warm sun. They decided to fly kites. They tried to assemble the kites at the widening of the boardwalk right before it descended to the beach. One of the kite struts slipped out of its package and fell through a gap in the boardwalk planks. David, without thought of the rattler warning, slipped between the boardwalk guardrail bars and climbed underneath to retrieve the piece. Judith watched in disbelief. What would happen if David encountered a snake? Surely the hidden place under the boardwalk was a perfect place for baby rattlers. Baby rattlers also have venomous strikes but before they shed their skins they have no rattles. Judith watched in anguish but all was well and David emerged with the missing strut.

It took them some time to get the kites aloft because the wind was so strong. When they deduced that the kites needed extra tails as ballast things went better. Initially they tried attaching sea weed but then discovered that the long thin packages that the kites had come in made excellent tail extensions. Indeed, they discovered that these extensions could be adjusted by the addition of sand. Everything was going fine with two kites aloft and the kite strings fully extended when one of the girls dropped her tether. For a moment it looked as though the kite might fly off on its own, but instead it took a nose dive into the dunes.

David didn’t hesitate. He ran to the boardwalk and when he got to the part closest to the lost toy he scrambled through the side of the boardwalk and walked toward it. As soon as Judith realized what was happening she ran up the boardwalk to be as close as possible. She was about to call out a warning when she saw him glance at her. He didn’t wave, but turned and continued on toward the toy. Suddenly, just before he reached his goal, he stopped and stood motionless with one foot in the air. Judith had often seen him balance thus in the gym.

© Jane Stansfeld April 2015