Sunday, 12 September 2010

An unpublished story, "Of Snakes and Turtles"

Of Snakes and Turtles 

When I was growing up our family lived in the suburbs. Our particular suburb was located on the westerly edge of town. It was an early post-war suburb, new and handsome for its day but not affluent in the manner of later suburbs. I remember that the roads, for example, were never surfaced with anything more extravagant than crushed stone spread over hot tar. And it took a long while before sidewalks were laid down. When eventually they were, a no-man’s land immediately sprang up – the grassy verge between the sidewalk and the roadway. Although the verge was city property, it was the homeowners’ responsibility to keep the grass mowed; because it was city property, the homeowners never bothered. As a result the grass grew unchecked the summer long, the weeds flourished, and we kids had a jungle to play in.

When after a time that jungle became too small for us, we turned our attention to a larger one nearby: the woods that lay behind my house, a stone’s throw the other side of the creek. Our attention, however, was not unambivalent. On the one hand these woods excited our imaginations, our youthful lust for adventure. On the other hand they were a dark and scary place, filled with black flying things, staccato cries, lugubrious moans. Once little Jamie Jones, who later entered the priesthood, was lost in the woods overnight. He swore on the bible that he had been held captive by demons and evil spirits. Naturally no one believed him.  But if we were timid about venturing near the woods before, we were even more timid afterwards.

Consequently, when one afternoon during religion period, Eddie, the oldest and hence biggest boy in our class, handed me a note proposing we go snake-hunting in the woods Saturday, I was of mixed feelings. The allure of adventure contended with the fear of the woods. In the end I assented: adventure won. The note was duly passed around until, despite one mishap, we mustered a contingent of about eleven volunteers. The mishap was that Russ Connelly was caught with the note and ordered to recite five “Our Father”s as punishment.

The rest of the school week – Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – passed uneventfully as we made our plans. For instance, we prepared a checklist of necessaries: rubber boots, because the earth would probably still be soft and wet in the woods; bag lunches, for a hunt of this magnitude could easily last all day; a wicker basket – with a lid – for the captured snakes; windbreakers (our mothers insisted); pocket knives; and so on.

Come Friday night excitement was running at a high pitch. Ralph Forbes, the class smart guy, fanned the excitement with tales of the magical properties of snakes. The snake that tempted Eve we knew about, but he did relate one story about the luck of coming across two snakes coupling (“Coupling?” “Getting it on”) that was new to us. It appeared that one gained spiritual insight, everlasting wisdom if one smote them with a stick. Mind you, added Ralph, you would first be struck physically blind. Although this seemed a decidedly unfair exchange, we were nonetheless keen to find two snakes coupling. Any qualms we might have felt about any aspect of the hunt were quickly forgotten in the rush of adrenalin. We saw ourselves as an intrepid lot, game for anything.

On Saturday morning the sun was shining bright and the temperature was a warm sixty-five degrees. Despite the fact it was a glorious spring day only seven of the eleven showed up, including me. There was Eddie of course. A bulky, sloppy boy with a wild tangle of curly hair, Eddie was something of a bully, resulting, I always suspected, from being held back a year in elementary school: he used brawn to make up for what he thought he lacked in brains. My two best friends, Russ Connelly and Ralph Forbes, had been the first to arrive (Ralph was always the first to arrive everywhere). Ralph was one of our class’s three scholarship boys and looked the part: earnest, gangly, wearing thick, thick glasses and a distracted manner – the stereotypical absent-minded professor, but as a youth. Russell was a good all-rounder: skilled at sports (but not too skilled), smart in school (but not too smart), and street-wise outside school (but not too street-wise) – which was to say, he was a lot like me, but fortunately for our friendship not more so. The fact that Jamie Jones showed up was a surprise; he didn’t usually associate with us on weekends. I liked Jamie but we were not buddies; there was always something too ... I don’t know, too angelic, too pure about him. When he was around you just couldn’t tell a dirty joke; if he was there, the joke suddenly wasn’t funny anymore. Rounding out the group were Peter Lawson and Jeff Gardner, best friends to each other but not close friends of mine.

By ten thirty we had assembled as arranged on the banks of the creek – pronounced locally as “crick” – to fashion willow whips. Some of us, Eddie in the forefront, clambered immediately up the trunks of the willow trees, whereas others preferred to keep their feet solidly on the ground. From the willows we broke off some of the long slender branches, which we then cleaned of sprigs and foliage with our jack-knives. The resulting branch acted as a whip in our hands; it possessed flexibility and resilience and made a loud snap if you flicked it just right. The idea was, the long whips would stun the snakes, we at the other end being a safe distance away. We figured this was a wise precaution since the woods were reported to be teeming with venomous snakes of every ilk and variety: copperheads and cottonmouths, sidewinders and bushmasters, black mambas and diamond-back rattlers...

Ralph’s shrieks of laughter interrupted our excited litany. The most unusual snake we’re likely to encounter, he stated, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye, was the milk snake, as harmless as the day is long. “Is it true that milk snakes suck milk from the teats of sleeping cows?” “Stuff and nonsense,” he answered with a dismissive wave of his hand; “old wives’ tales.” Deflating as this news was, we retained our whips: despite Ralph – due to Ralph in fact, his stories – we knew better than to underestimate snakes. We were taking no chances; we were intrepid, not foolhardy.

We continued trimming the branches, and we frisked and romped and had great fun. The air was filled with our laughter, whoops, and hollers. Much of the pleasure consisted of these final preparations: the camaraderie, the clowning, the anticipation of an adventure. Who really cared what the adventure? What does one do after all with a basketful of stunned snakes? And who wants to be around when they become unstunned?

By the time we were ready it was approaching noon. So we decided to postpone the actual hunt until after lunch. We would penetrate the woods only so far as necessary to find a spot where we could eat comfortably. Then a curious thing happened. The minute we entered the woods, a hush fell over us. The mood of our bright, chattering band of explorers turned subdued, respectful. It was like entering an immense cathedral: full of haunting mystery, a sense of brooding power. The trees high up filtered the sunlight, the way stained-glass windows sometimes do, admitting light in long columns, in which an infinitude of dust motes hung suspended, like incense smoke. The circumambient sounds – the caw of the crow, the tree leaves rustling in the breeze, the murmur of the creek, and so many sounds we couldn't identify – served, it seemed, primarily to accentuate the profounder church-like silence of the place. These woods certainly had an uncanny way of getting to one. We almost felt afraid to speak lest we be shushed by some stern parent: “...And don't let me hear another peep out of you until the response!”

Without a peep we trudged through the undergrowth until we came to a small, sunlit clearing. Although this was our first trip to the woods, it was obviously not uncharted terrain: the clearing was littered with broken bottles, brown beer bottles, green Coke bottles; the black remains of a campfire marked the centre; paper debris was strewn about. Peter Lawson innocently picked up what looked like a white balloon. Eddie, laughing, told him what it was used for, and Peter quickly threw it in the bushes in disgust. We sat ourselves on the boulders or lounged on the grass and quietly munched our sandwiches. Mine was a peanut butter and jam: a lunchtime staple.

The food and the sun revived our spirits, and more normally noisy we pushed on, the very incarnation of the early explorers. Into the gloom once again, fearlessly, fearlessly.

Soon out, a snake was spotted sunning itself of a shelf of exposed limestone. “Hey, there’s one,” Eddie shouted and off we went at a gallop, all seven of us, a mad flurry of willow whips vainly flailing the ground, while the snake slithered off to safety. During this activity, little Jamie Jones’s willow somehow caught Eddie squarely on the back of the thigh, drawing a thing line of blood. Eddie yelped in pain and, his massive hands curling into fists, angrily turned on Jamie. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly. Eddie glared at him threateningly for a long minute before Russ broke the tension by interjecting something to the effect that at least they found out how well the whips worked.

After that episode we didn't see any more snakes for an hour or so – chipmunks, birds, trilliums in abundance, but no more snakes. Then we arrived at an escarpment, dense with bushes. At the top of it, which was clear and grassy, we noticed a huge pile of haphazardly coiled rope. I thought this curious and was venturing nearer when a two-foot length of the gray rope slid off the pile and down the slope. Almost before this fact had registered on my mind, the cry “Snakes!” went up from behind me, and once again there was a rush of bodies and a flailing of sticks. The next instant the grass was empty. We had been frustrated a second time.

We tried not to let the frustration get us down, but we were not very successful. Our bad luck was plainly making us disgruntled – that in addition to the ponderous atmosphere of the woods, which was having its effect, making us restive and moody. Nonetheless we proceeded on, perhaps hoping to salvage something yet from the remaining day, perhaps unwilling to admit defeat. Conversation of a desultory nature was attempted as we walked. Anyone know the name of that tree? Peter asked, pointing. No one bothered to answer him: it was a birch, the idiot. Would the Yankees win the pennant? Why not? they do every year. Jeff, who wasn’t wearing rubbers, got a soaker at one point when he stepped into a deep puddle of water. With each step his shoes made a squishing sound; uncomfortable, he let the fact be known.

We stopped for a rest. Eddie, sweating profusely, stripped off his shirt and plopped heedlessly down on the ground. Ralph informed him that the green stuff he was sitting in the middle of was poison ivy. Eddie snapped back that Ralph should mind his own business, he didn’t know what he was talking about. Eddie and the rest of us knew, however, that Ralph always knew what he was talking about.

After that, it was obvious our hearts weren’t in the hunt any more. Eddie stood up and slid his arms into his shirt. “Let’s go on,” he said – it came out like a command. Little Jamie offered a counter-suggestion: “I’m bored with this. Let’s go home.” All of us agreed – we were bored too – all of us except Eddie, who did not appreciate the suggestion in the least. We had come to hunt snakes, and hunt snakes we damn well would. Hunting snakes had been his idea; it was a matter of face that we continue and be successful. His fingers seemed to manifest his ire as they fumbled in a fury at his shirt buttons. But he began the return trek with the rest of us.

Nearby was a small stream that Ralph surmised fed into the creek, and it was this stream that we chose to guide us out. Presently a pathway appeared alongside the stream. We walked it in silence for the most part. A couple of times Eddie tried to pick a fight with Ralph, who refused to be goaded, which infuriated Eddie even more. He was getting on our nerves, Eddie was. On top of this foreign country that was the woods, we didn’t need the added aggravation of him bullying and blustering. Stuff it, Eddie, for Chrissakes, will you? I longed to scream, but I didn’t. Suddenly the woods ended and we were out, all in all relatively unscathed, despite feeling dirty and ill-tempered and wearing a few cuts and scrapes, and Eddie haranguing and beginning to itch. The pathway had emerged from the woods quite close to the spot we had entered, within a dozen yards in fact, so the rest was easy: over the bridge and home for supper.

We were about to cross the bridge when a cry from Eddie and a pointed finger brought our attention to a common painted turtle basking in the last remaining rays of the sun. Before the turtle could slip off into the water and to safety, Eddie had scooped it up in his hands and was bearing it higher up on the grassy bank, where he set it down, beckoning for us to come share his find. It was getting late and we wanted to go home. We were also thoroughly fed up with Eddie by now; but by virtue of his size and age, he commanded a certain obedience. Hence we collected grudgingly around him and the luckless turtle – luckless, we knew, for Eddie’s eyes fairly glinted with meanness. He had been thwarted and frustrated all day long, and from experience we could tell that he was going to vent his accumulated anger on the turtle.

He began by riding on its back. The carapace was just large enough to support his two feet, so Eddie, his arms outstretched for balance, was urging “giddyup” and cackling meanly all the while. Since the turtle did nothing, Eddie started to bounce up and down on its shell. He was getting carried away, overexcited, and cursing the turtle: he wanted to hurt it and it wasn’t being hurt. “Come on, Eddie, lay off; the turtle never did anything to you,” ventured Ralph tentatively. In a reflex motion Eddie flung out his arm blindly, hitting Ralph a strong blow on the face, which sent his eyeglasses flying. When they were retrieved, both lenses were discovered to be broken. “You ...” Ralph restrained himself from uttering an obscenity, fearing that harsher retribution might follow. “What did you say?” taunted Eddie. “N-n-n-now I can’t see,” bleated Ralph instead. “Ask a couple of snakes to give you insight, then,” sneered Eddie, still teetering on the back of the turtle. “And don’t bother me with any more of your whining.” Then from beneath Eddie’s feet, a quick, sharp crack was heard. “N-n-n-n-now w-w-w-we’ll have to k-k-kill it,” said Ralph, whose stutter always returned under stress. “How do we do that?” asked another voice. I wasn’t sure who asked the question, for the gathering darkness was rapidly closing us off from one another’s sight. In addition we were all staring fixedly at the turtle, more to avoid the possibility of meeting one another’s eyes than for any other reason. We were ashamed of doing nothing to stop Eddie’s cruel antics. Another voice: “Ralph’s right. It’ll only suffer if we don’t kill it.” “There’s nothing wrong with the friggin’ turtle,” protested Eddie. Darkness and shame gave us courage. “Shut up, Eddie,” said a voice firmly, no nonsense, no argument, just shut the hell up. “And get off it. You’ve done enough harm.” Strange to my ears, the voice was mine.

Aware that he no longer held control over the crowd, the bluster in Eddie died out and he stepped off. “How do you kill a turtle?” the question was repeated. “Dunno.” “A stake through its heart,” someone joked nervously after a minute. This elicited some nervous titters. Then a second voice chimed in: “No, crucify him.” Again some scattered nervous laughter was heard, but it was less nervous this time, and continued growing less and less nervous until nobody was nervous any more and everybody was laughing freely. As feeble as the joke had been, it managed to relieve the tension that had enveloped the group. “Crucify him,” yelled another voice. “Give us Barrabas!” “Crucify him! Let him be crucified!”

The joke had told the shift in mood from shame to something else. We had conquered Eddie effortlessly. A sense of our own unleashed power surged through us. The power belonged to us now, and had we too not been frustrated that day? In the gloaming a figure was seen to bend over, heft a large rock over his head, and bring it down on the turtle’s shell.  “Adulteress!” exclaimed with glee a shrill voice on the fringe of the circle. “The law says stone her!” A chorus went up – “Stone her, stone her” – as we found stones and hoisted them and threw them. We were enjoying this: eerie woods, no snakes, Eddie – we deserved a good break-out. The rocks bounced off the turtle’s shell, chipping it, cracking it. “Kill, kill!” we chanted; we chanted “Kill, kill!” With deadly accuracy the rocks hit one after the other: thud, thump, thud. Then a different sound: smash, a sickening sound: a smash; and the turtle emitted a faint squeak. We all fell silent. “And you creeps dare talk about me,” came Eddie’s voice, quiet with contempt, through the darkness. “The turtle’s dead,” someone announced, nudging it with the toe of his boot. We heard Eddie’s footsteps receding homewards over the bridge, as we stood there mutely, in full realization of the baseness of our actions. “I think I’ll go home.” “Me too.” Crossing the bridge, we all went out separate ways homewards.

Later that night little Jamie Jones’s mother phoned my mother asking why hadn’t Jamie returned with the rest of the boys. The next day Jamie emerged wet and hungry from the woods, having been abducted a second time by the demons of the dark wood.

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