Snake Hook
Elizabeth Wade

Experts usually say to start with caution, to try the equipment out on plush animals until you've learned how to gauge the distance, how to slide the metal up under the belly without scraping it, how to balance the hook in one hand while using the other to open the tank. Practice holding a full hook while doing other things—using the free hand to answer the phone or stir the soup. Work at it until you're comfortable with the weight. Then move up to a live specimen—nothing dangerous, just a garter snake, or a corn snake, maybe. You'll start to understand how to move cautiously, approaching the snake slowly, but with some deliberate signals. You shouldn't be afraid to talk to a snake, though you should know better than to believe you can charm it with your voice. Make sure to keep its head in sight. Lead with the hook rather than your hand. Have something nearby in case the snake grows agitated. A bucket can work, if it has a lid. But a trash can's sufficient, and once in a pinch, I dropped a hissing rat snake into mother's favorite stock pot. I washed it well, afterwards, but ever since, she's complained that her chili tastes off somehow. She even wrote the company that cans the tomatoes she likes, telling them something must have changed in their recipe, but of course I know better. I'm not telling, though.

And I never told her how he taught me. Now, there's no reason for keeping secrets—it's been decades, and he's long gone—so I guess it's just habit. Still, sometimes when I'm feeling lazy, when I reach a hook out to pull the basket off the top of the cabinets, or to drag an errant sock from behind the washing machine, I remember the day daddy caught me and Anna using his hooks as swords. He waited until she went home, waited until mother had gone to the market up in town, when he knew she'd be gone a good long while.

I was reading Harriet the Spy that summer, and I was growing jealous of Harriet for having so many people to spy on. All I had were Momma and Daddy. Well, and the animals, of course, but they don't really have secrets, so there was no point in spying on them. And most of their days were just spent basking. So I'd given up on spying and decided to read more about Harriet's adventures when Daddy found me on the porch swing. He tossed a snake hook to me and said, Time you learned what it's really for. I followed him into the barn, walked up to the king snake, the only one he'd ever let me touch from his collection. Nope. That one, he commanded, gesturing toward the copperhead tank. If you're gonna learn, you're gonna learn it right. Ain't no motivation in the easy snakes. Gotta try it on one that counts.

I'm not sure what I thought of his decision back then. I had heard stories of people who taught their children to swim by throwing them into bodies of water, and I remember realizing he was doing the same thing to me. But if I evaluated his approach that afternoon—good parenting, bad parenting, call Social Services—the memory's escaped me. All I remember is nodding my head, watching as he pulled open the top of the tank, slipped the hook back by the branch, then snuck it underneath the belly of the smaller snake. She's not as big as the other one, he said, but she's nastier. He moved her to a bucket at his feet, covered it securely, then slid over another bucket and handed me the hook. Get the other one out so we can clean their tank.

I don't think he ever said I could not tell mother, but I knew she'd disapprove. I knew, too, that he picked the safest venomous snake he had, one that was local to our North Carolina home and that local doctors knew how to treat wounds from. But I was still scared. I did what scared people do: took a deep breath, considered running away, decided to stay. The snake was heavier than I expected, but I didn't drop it. And it seemed to know what its role was. It coiled up on the hook and let me move it into the bucket. It was hard to get it off the hook, but Daddy took over then, told me I'd done just fine. Now you know how, he said. Just in case. 

Elizabeth Wade has stories in or coming from Kenyon Review, AGNI, Oxford American and others. She is an Associate Editor at NANO Fiction.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Rudolf Vlček.

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