The Snake Hunters
We were riding around in the back, in the bed, and Judah said, “Hey!” The truck stopped. He launched himself over the edge of the bed of the truck and into the weeds, carrying a shovel. The weeds were thick and green that Spring. The sorghum had sprouted and the beans were up with pairs of leaves. He waded into the weeds, his boot steps making sucking sounds in the mud and his shovel raised like a spear.
“Thought I saw a snake,” he said.
“What kind of snake?” we said.
“Think it was a copperhead.”
“Wha’d it look like?” we asked, and Judah, the older boy, probably 15 or 16, said it was kind of copper-red and he saw it crossing, black against the bleach-white gravel, a big, wriggling snake.
“Maybe I runned it over with the truck,” said Brother Dale, the man who was driving that day. The older boy with the shovel said, “Maybe,” and said, “It was movin’ fast.” And then we were silent, watching him hunt for the snake.
The brother got a hoe, went to the edge of the road, and whacked at the edge of the weeds. He swung it like a scythe. He nicked and thrashed a thin line of weeds, popping off pod heads and breaking thin stems, stripping the skin off some of the thicker stalks. If the boy with the shovel was overeager, reckless, looking for a trophy to kill, then the man was overcautious, like he wanted to look like he was helping without going anywhere near where a snake might be. Like he knew he was the man and he could take credit for whatever the boy brought back but he’d be blamed for whatever went wrong.
“Y’all stay there,” Brother Dale said to us in the truck, “me and him’ll get this.” And he went to whacking away and watching the boy with the shovel.
There were rules about snakes on the land. We were supposed to kill them. We were supposed to cut off their heads and burry the heads while the mouths still gasped, fangs stretching out for something to bite as the shovel slid under and scooped them into a hole. There were snake skulls buried all across that bottomland. Most of the snakes were poisonous. Not all of them, but most, and we were trying to farm. We were trying to go back to the land, learning again how to plow and plant, grow and pick. So there was a war on the snakes. Anyone who killed one was a hero, reaping a bounty of praise. To kill a snake was to take dominion, to fight back, to go back to where we lived by nature’s laws and where the righteous bring forth right by force.
We always heard stories about snakes on the land. We heard stories about good dogs-but dumb dogs-getting killed by snake heads left laying around, and about grown men making tourniquets they sterilized with piss. I never saw anyone bit, though. It never happened during the five years I was there. Now I wonder if it wasn’t the metaphor that motivated the war on snakes. Snakes were evil, and we were the righteous, fighting them with gardening tools. Satan was a snake and doubt was a snake and questions, a snake. The Devil’s deception was a snake with a waving tongue. So we were told to hunt them down. We were supposed to be the Last Days people of God and we were supposed to be making the new Eden out of the land by the river in Texas. We didn’t have any enemies, though, no enemies except questions and unseen spirits and people’s secret doubts about the inspiration of the prophets. So we fought what we could see; we fought the snakes.
We got out of trucks and attacked weeds to hunt down Satan. We tried to hack the head off deceptions that made us question authority, and doubts that made us wonder. When we went into weeds, off the road and into the mud to try and find a snake to kill, we were trying to demonstrate our spiritual state, to show the men who spoke for God that we got it, that we were snake hunters.
We were afraid, of course. The fear felt like mud in our stomachs. In the weeds with a shovel, fear went icy up your spine and you strained your eyes, strained your ears, and tried to find the snake. We were afraid of getting bit, but also of failing, of being dumb like the dog who got venom in the face from the severed head of a snake. We were afraid of being made an example of stupid, of letting the snakes slither around on us, slide around behind us and bite us and demonstrate to everybody, the men and the prophets and girls and our fathers and God, that we were stupid and the snake got us.
So the older boy with the shovel went hunting. Judah went wading into the green weeds and over to the edge of the sorghum. He went wading into the green weeds and over to the edge of the sorghum and we could hear when he moved ’cause the mud slurped at his feet. But there was nothing, nothing but weeds and sorghum, bottomland mud and a ditch of standing water. Brother Dale at the edge was starting to worry and he stopped and said he thought the boy had better come back now. “He probably shoulda better, did he see it? Musta got away.” But then Judah said weren’t there women coming to work in the next field over in the afternoon and he wouldn’t want to let the snake go free for them would he? And then the brother was really worried, with the responsibility and the metaphoric meaning of snakes, and he didn’t know what to do. He stood there, looking helpless. “Do you see it?” he said, but there was nothing.
In the truck where we waited in the bed, in the back, I sat back down on the wheel well, and we gave up on the snake and went to waiting. The other two boys went back to arguing about Fords and Chevys. The younger boys were always arguing about trucks, always arguing brands, and it seemed like when the Antichrist did finally come, they’d still be trying to settle whether Ford sucked more or Chevy did. We sat there, in the Spring sun, and the one said it did and the other it didn’t and the one said the other didn’t know and the other said he did and what about blue truck that’d broken down? They would argue like that forever, ignoring everything else and arguing endlessly, so I stayed silent.
Brother Dale said to come on back and Judah did, still insisting that what he’d seen was big. But there was nothing, neither snake nor revelation in the muddy weeds, and we drove on. I sat and looked at the road as we left it behind, watching where the sun-white gravel went into the oaks by the river, where the trees snuck roots out into the water and drank. In the distance I could see a house, calm up under the shade, but there was no one there.