Other Writing: The Snake Stories

For reasons too complex to relate, I have a lot of plastic and rubber snakes in my house. When my niece Arianna, 6, came to visit in 2018 she was delighted by the snakes, and in a letter afterwards asked me about them.  So in my reply I told her a story about my snakes, and she enjoyed it, so in my next letter I told her another story, and she liked that one too, so I started including a snake story in each letter (some with an illustrative drawing).  I have been having a good time writing these stories, the first fiction I have ever written (as an adult anyway).  Here are the stories I’ve written so far, with drawings for the ones I have already sent.  I will post these to my website and add more stories and drawings as they appear.  The footnotes are consecutive in this compendium but of course the numbering began fresh with each story as they were sent out.

I: Playing Backgammon

            The snakes and I have lived together a long time.  When they saw us playing backgammon they wanted to try it also, especially the second-largest snake, who is very brave and always willing to try new things.  So we sat down at the table to play, and the little green snake who lives inside the backgammon set encouraged her.  Of course snakes have no  hands, so I had to roll the dice for her.  I had to move the pieces for her too – she could push them with her nose, but then her tail would “accidentally” knock other pieces off their points, and she couldn’t push pieces over the bar in the middle of the board.  So I had to do it all, for her side and mine.  I don’t know how she did it but she won.  Actually I think she might have cheated a little, but I’m not sure how an animal can cheat at backgammon when someone else handles the dice and moves the pieces. 

            Anyway when she won all the snakes insisted on celebrating, so we went out to a bar to drink beer.  It doesn’t take much beer to get a small snake drunk, so I poured one beer into a saucer for all of them to drink from.  Pretty soon they were laughing and singing snake songs, and it got harder to understand what they were saying.  Snake language is mostly hisses anyway, even when they are not drunk, but they didn’t care, and after a while they all fell asleep and I had to bring them home in my pocket.  One of them threw up in there, but it was OK because it was the very smallest snake and it made hardly any mess at all.

II: Snakes and Birds

            I told the snakes you were glad to hear about them, and they were pleased. But we have had some snake problems recently.  When they are not playing backgammon or checking their e-mail on my computer, or drinking coffee, or doing other inside things, they like to hang out in my back yard. They hunt there, and they lay eggs.  The problem is that they eat birds’ eggs, and the birds who live in my back yard don’t like it.  Also the birds like to eat snakes’ eggs.  So things got kind of angry – the snakes got mad at the birds for eating their eggs, and called them featherheads, which they are, sort of, but still, yikes! And the birds got very insulted at this, and called the snakes slinky-pants, which doesn’t make much sense because snakes don’t wear pants.

            Finally we turned to an anteater to settle it – everyone thought she could be fair because they don’t lay eggs and don’t eat them either.  She had come up from South America to eat the millions of ants that swarm all over my place when the rains come, and was just hanging around waiting for rain.  She decided that the birds and the snakes could fight it out somewhere else if they wanted to, but not in my back yard – in my back yard NO ONE COULD EAT ANY EGGS AT ALL. That was all I wanted – I have enough to do keeping peace here on my own land.  The snakes and the birds both saw that their eggs would be safe here and could hatch in peace.  So they shook hands, or would have if snakes and birds had hands, and that was the last we heard of it.

III: Bus Stop

            The snakes and the birds are not fighting in my back yard any more, which is all I care about – they can do what they like down the block.  But last week it was time to take the snakes to the veterinarian for their vaccinations. So  loaded them into the car and we started driving.  Snakes are serious kibitzers – they were doing a lot of what would have been back-seat driving if my car had a back seat.  They like speed, and kept hissing fassssster! Fassssster!  Sometimes they would go the other way with ssssslow!  Or even ssssstop!  It got on my nerves after a while and I told them to cut it out or they’d have to get out and walk.  They thought that was very funny, because snakes don’t walk, but get out and slither didn’t sound right.  So I said I would leave them at the bus stop and they could just get to the veterinarian on their own.  They thought this was even funnier, and soon all the snakes were laughing and giggling and hissing busssss ssssstop! Busssss ssssstop!  So I did leave them at the bus stop, which is what they really wanted, because they didn’t want to go to the veterinarian for ssssshots anyway.  I could still hear them laughing as I drove away.  Most of them slithered home in time for dinner, and no more was ever sssssaid about it.

IV: A Day at the Beach

It is getting on toward winter here – not a real heavy cold winter like you have in New York, and no snow, but cold enough to need a coat sometimes, and it rains.  So when the snakes asked to go to the beach I wanted to let them have one more beach day.

We had a good time playing there – the water was too cold for me but not for them.  Some snakes live in the water – even in the ocean.  None of my snakes are ocean snakes, but most of them are great swimmers, even though they don’t have fins.  They are also really good at burrowing into the sand.  They can even play with beach toys – they can hit a small beach ball around with their noses or tails (they call it sssssoccer), and the cleverest of them can team up to work a pail and ssssshovel.  Scientists have not noticed this behavior because they have not given snakes pails or shovels to play with.

Finally, though, it started to get dark, and I could see that it was going to rain soon, so I said it was time to leave and asked everyone to get ready.  They didn’t want to go.  Some of them hissed ssssstay!  But most of them just ignored me, and kept on playing, or tried to hide.  So I took out my list and called each of the snakes by name.  There were 13 of them:

  1. Roscoe (an anaconda – he is my biggest snake);
  2. Aretha (a corn snake);
  3. Alejandro (a Mexican burrowing python);
  4. Lakshmi (an Indian trinket snake);
  5. Maria de Gracia (a tropical vine snake);
  6. DeWayne (a deaf adder, although he is not deaf);
  7. Trixie (an emerald tree boa);
  8. Olga Vladimirovna (an eyelash viper);
  9. Xzrwжmkяq (I never can pronounce this name correctly);
  10. Abby (she is so shy she has never told us her personal name, but she is an eastern mud snake, so we call her Abby after her scientific name Farancia abacura);1
  11. Cottontail (a red milk snake);
  12. Peter (Cottontail’s brother – they were eggs in the same nest); and
  13. Daisy (a San Francisco garter snake – the smallest one).

Whenever I called out a name, a snake would come up to the front and hiss pressssent!  I thought this would get all of them ready to go, but when I finished I only had seven snakes.  I could not see the others, but there were holes in the sand – as I said snakes are great at burrowing.  They were answering to their names and then burrowing out of sight.  This was not working.

So I called them back and made them sound off, like soldiers do in the army – the first snake would say one, and the second would say two, and so on – when we got to 13 I would know I had all my snakes together.  But when the numbers got to 22 I knew the snakes were messing with me.  Much giggling and hissing.

By now it was pretty dark, and getting colder as the rain came near, and cold can be a problem for snakes.  You and I, and cats and horses and birds and animals like that, are warm-blooded.  We make our own body heat – unless things get too extreme our bodies stay warm by themselves.  Your blood is very warm − almost 100 degrees – even when it is very cold out.2 But snakes are reptiles – cold-blooded animals – when they get cold they just sort of go to sleep.  So I told the snakes it’s getting cold – better get inside – not kidding – as I call your name go stay by the car!

The snakes grumbled a bit, but they obeyed, and one by one they went to the car, all except for Daisy, the smallest snake.  We called her but there was no answer.  Now the snakes got serious, we were all worried.  So we looked around frantically for Daisy.  We couldn’t leave her behind in the cold rain!  If she got too cold Daisy might burrow into the sand and go to sleep, but when the tide came in it could flood her burrow!  Or she could try to make it home on her own, but she’d have to cross the road – very dangerous for a little snake!  Finally we found her, though – she was already in the car, asleep inside the plastic pail!  So we all cheered, and then we drove home.  I warmed the snakes up with a hot shower (13 snakes can be great fun in a shower!) and lots of hot cocoa.  And that was our last beach day of the year.

V: Luigi’s Pizza Parlor

            My snakes have been troublesome lately.  They started complaining about the food.  I have my chef Antoine prepare meatballs for all of them every morning – one meatball for every six inches of snake.  (I almost said two meatballs for every foot, but of course snakes don’t have feet.)  This is the daily  portion suggested by Professor Turtlenose in his book Herpetology for Dummies.1 For my 13 snakes that comes out to 181 meatballs, or about 23 pounds of ground beef, every day, not to mention the garlic and onions and oregano.  I also give them unlimited kibble at night.  That should be enough.

            But they were not satisfied.  They wanted mice and frogs and grasshoppers and cockroaches, and they held a big meeting to complain.  I said, “Listen, my serpents.” They love it when I call them serpents, even though it’s just a fancy word for snakes.  “Listen, my serpents,” I said.  “You guys are predators.  All the back yards on this block are connected.  You can slither under the fences and hunt the whole area.  There may not be any frogs, but there are hundreds of mice and rats, and certainly cockroaches and beetles and maybe even scorpions if you’re lucky.”  (Murmur of ssssscorpions – they love scorpions for that special crunch.)  “I’m not providing mice or cockroaches for you – this isn’t a hotel.  You get meatballs and kibble − go hunt if you want extras!  You’re in the army now!”  (This was not exactly true, they’re not actually in the army,  but I thought it sounded good, a crisp way to say get with the program!).

            There was some whimpering and hissing when I said this, and some sniffling, and cries of awwww! And no fair!  Then I felt a little sorry for my snakes – I didn’t want to be too harsh on them.  So I said “OK, just this once, pizza for everyone.  What do you want on your pizzas?”  Or course I should have known – they wanted mice and frogs and cockroaches and grasshoppers.

            So I called Luigi’s Pizza Parlor.  Luigi answered the phone.  I said “Luigi, do you have mice?”  There was silence for a minute, and then Luigi said “yes, we have mice, but please boss, don’t shut me down.  Think of my poor family.”  I didn’t quite understand what he meant, so I went on.  “And cockroaches, Luigi.  Do you have cockroaches?”  More silence.  Luigi started to cry.  “Yes, we have cockroaches too.  But what can I do?  I’m a poor man, boss.  This place is all I have.  Don’t put me out of business!”

            I said “put you out of business?  All I want is two large pizzas, one with extra mice and one with extra cockroaches.  Do you deliver?”  Luigi said “O grazie dio,2 I thought you were an inspector from the health department!  But no, we can’t give you mice on a pizza.  How about meat balls?”  Then I understood.  “Thanks, Luigi,” I said, “we have plenty of meat balls.  But I think I can take care of your mouse and cockroach problem.”

            So I turned to the meeting of angry snakes and said “Guys, get ready for a hunting trip!”  Then we all got into my car and went to Luigi’s.  We got there about eleven in the morning, and the snakes went at it, and by about 3:30 they had eaten every mouse and cockroach in the place, and the bigger snakes also ate rats, and the smaller ones found some worms.  By the time we were done the snakes were so full they could hardly move, and Luigi was so happy he gave us a gift certificate for four free large pizzas to use whenever we wanted.  We promised to come back every few weeks to clear out the mice and cockroaches.  Luigi’s wife came out and gave us a cheesecake, which only I was interested in because snakes don’t like cheesecake.  And since then no one has complained about the food.

VI: Roscoe’s Story

            It has been a very eventful time for the snakes.  A sad thing happened, and then a happy thing.

            First the sad thing:  Roscoe, the biggest snake and one of the friendliest, is gone.  Roscoe is an anaconda, and he was growing very large.  He was nearly 15 feet long – that’s 30 meatballs a day, plus kibble.  Roscoe had learned our city ways, but as he said he missed his home.  He wanted to be in a big river again, in a hot climate, he said; he wanted to hunt bigger prey than rats and the occasional bird.  He caught raccoons every now and then in my back yard, and maybe some cats although we don’t like to mention that.  But he wanted pigs, and fish, and capybara (which are like huge guinea pigs), and monkeys, and other largish animals we could not give him here.  Also he missed being around other anacondas, and he missed his native country of Brazil (in South America).  And the truth was that a house like mine, even with the back yard, is kind of small for a snake 15 feet long, and he was still growing.  Here’s a picture of an anaconda about Roscoe’s size.

            So we talked about it, and when he decided to go back I supported his decision, even though it made me very sad to lose him.  He had been living here with me for almost seven years.  But I couldn’t stand in his way.  A snake’s gotta do what a snake’s gotta do.  So I helped him make arrangements to go back. 

            This was not easy.  He had been captured in Brazil as a young snake and was flown to Miami, Florida, in a small cage – he was not very big then.  He was left in a pet store and stayed there until someone bought him as a gift for his son.  The son put him in a glass box like a fish tank and left him there for two years – he hardly ever played with him or talked to him, and fed him mostly cat food.  Yuk!  It was very boring and a painful period for Roscoe − he doesn’t like to talk about it, but we stayed up late one night and he told me the whole story.

            Then the boy’s family moved to California, and took roscoe along in the glass box, and while they were unpacking roscoe escaped!  He went to hide in the park, where there was a good-sized lake, and that was much better than a glass box.  But there was not all that much to eat, just a few fish and turtles, and some pigeons and gophers, and no one to talk to.  He heard about my place through the Intersnake website, and when he came to my door I took him in, even though he was already seven feet long by this time.

            It was not going to be easy to get him home.  You can’t bring a 15-foot snake on an airplane – they won’t let you on.  He was  too big now for a cage like the one he came here in, and anyway that brought  back bad memories. So it would have to be a ship.  But where could we find a ship?  I brought this up at a meeting of the SFSFSF (the Sagrada Familia [holy family]  of San Francisco Snake Fanciers), and one of the members (I can’t mention his name, he’s very famous, you’d know him) knew a guard at the port of Oakland, right across the bay from San Francisco.  The guard knew someone who knew someone, and for $400 we smuggled Roscoe onto a ship bound for Santarém in Brazil, 500 miles up the Amazon River, right where he wanted to go.  The ship (called the Serpente do Mar, meaning sea serpent) would be carrying thousands of tons of American soybeans, so there would be lots of mice and rats to eat, and one big meal before he left would keep him going for a while. 

            So we had a big party for roscoe the night before the ship sailed, with mice and grasshoppers for everyone (don’t ask where I got them), and Diet Cokes (they love diet cokes), and a huge raw roast beef for Roscoe.  Although snakes are not usually sentimental, everyone loved Roscoe.  He had been here longer than any of the others, he was part of home for everyone including me.  The snakes sang sad snake songs, and brave you’ll-be-fine songs, and a few of the other tropical snakes began thinking of their own faraway homes.  Snakes don’t cry, but some of them wanted to, and so did I.1

            The next day Alejandro and Maria de Gracia and I drove Roscoe to the Port of Oakland and said goodbye.  He was sorry to leave us, but excited about beginning a new life as an anaconda in real anaconda country.2 He promised to write, which is possible now because of e-mail which snakes can do easily without hands if they can find a wi-fi connection.  And then Roscoe slithered up the gangplank and down into the hold with the soybeans, and that is the last we could see of him.  We’ll miss him, but he’ll be OK, I know he will.  I was proud of Roscoe for having the courage to do what he did.

            I was going to tell you about the other thing that happened, the happy thing that kind of balances out the sadness of losing Roscoe.  But I have used so much space for this part of the story that it will have to wait for next time.

VII: Abby’s Children

So last time I said a sad thing and a happy thing had happened with the snakes, and the sad thing was Roscoe moving back to Brazil.  Now for the happy thing, which is about Abby.

I   first heard about it from Aretha.  She came to me one day a few months ago and told me that Abby was feeling kind of tired, but that she was very hungry.  This was unusual – snakes are usually hungry and active, or tired and not much interested in eating.  I   asked Aretha if Abby could be sick, and she said no, not sick exactly, but could she have a double ration of meatballs just for the time being, and an egg?  When I   asked why, Aretha acted mysterious and wouldn’t say.  But of course I   told Antoine to give Abby whatever Aretha thought she should have.

I   went to check up on Abby the next day, and asked her what was happening.  You’ll remember that Abby is a shy snake, so shy she won’t even tell us her personal name.  So when I asked her about this she wouldn’t answer.  But although snakes don’t usually do this, I thought I saw her blush a little, and while they don’t do this either, I’m sure I saw the hint of a shy smile.  So I thought: could Abby be getting ready to lay some eggs?

Well, that’s what it was, of course.  I went back to Aretha and she confirmed it.  When, I   asked?  Soon, she said.  Do we need a veterinarian?  Aretha said no, snakes usually lay eggs without difficulty, but she and Lakshmi would keep an eye on her.  Aretha and Lakshmi had laid a lot of eggs in their lives and knew how it was done, so I left it to them, and told Antoine to  make sure Abby had what she needed.

Trixie and Olga made a nest for Abby from some fresh towels.  I   later learned that the nest was in a cool, dark, quiet place under the stairs.  Mud snakes prefer to lay their eggs in mud, of course, but we didn’t have any mud except what the cold winter rain was making outside, not a good place for egg-laying.  The female snakes took turns sitting with Abby; Maria de Gracia, who could read (very unusual for a snake), read to her from Serpent Poems and from What Every Snake Mother Should Know.  Male snakes were politely but firmly discouraged from hanging around the nest.

And then a couple of nights later Abby delivered her clutch, as a group of snake eggs is called by snake experts (I am getting to be a snake expert myself).  There were 14 of them.  Then we had to wait for them to hatch, which took about two months (I didn’t want to tell you about it until I knew they had hatched safely).  Abby didn’t have to sit on them like birds do – she just had to lay them and hope no one bothered them, which of course no one in my house would ever do, and anyway they were way down under the stairs.

Daisy was fascinated by the whole thing and tried to learn as much as she could, looking forward to the day when she would lay eggs of her own.  She was very startled to learn that garter snakes don’t lay eggs, but give birth to live snakelets.

finally the day came when the eggs hatched.  Human babies, as you know, are born entirely helpless, and it is many years before they can manage on their own.  You, for example, are nearly seven, but you would soon be in real trouble if you had no one to take care of you.  There are some kinds of snakes, cobras for instance, that take care of their young ones and look after them, at least for a while.  But most snakes are born, or hatch, more or less ready to go.  And so it was with Abby’s hatchlings.

They took a little while to get used to being in the world rather than in an egg, but within an hour or so it was “Thanks, Mom, we’ll take it from here, which way are the mice?”  And Abby had the same casual attitude.  I didn’t hear her exactly, but the sense seemed to be “Hi, kids, glad you made it ok. Mice are mostly outside, plus a few in the walls and ceiling, but they serve meatballs and kibble in the dining room.  Enjoy!”  And that was it.  It’s not that Abby was a bad mother, but she’s a snake, and that’s how they do things.  No hard feelings.

Abby laid 14 eggs, but only 11 hatched.  This too is quite normal.  Snake eggs are soft and leathery, not like chicken eggs, and the ones that didn’t hatch, Abby ate.  I told you snakes are unsentimental.

But that left 11 newborn snakes.  Were they boys or girls?  And what should we call them?  It’s very hard to tell a male mud snake from a female one without a close physical examination, so we just asked them what they were. There were seven girls and six boys.  Abby didn’t name them – they’ll figure it out, she said – but I couldn’t stand their not having names so I   named them after California counties. The girls are Angeles, Barbara, Clara, Mariposa, Merced, Shasta and Sierra, and the boys are Benito, Bernardino, Diego, Francisco, Joaquin (pronounced Wakeen) and Luis.1)I left off prefixes like San [Francisco], Santa [Barbara], and Los [Angeles].

We were glad to welcome these new snakelets of Abby’s, but they presented two problems.  First, how could they hunt?  The snakes we already had were gobbling up the mice and insects in the back yard – the area couldn’t support twice as many snakes.  And second, suddenly having 12 mud snakes (Abby and 11 snakelets), and only 11 of all the other kinds together, could lead to difficulties and conflict (mud snakes against everyone else).  But it all worked out — I’ll explain in my next letter what happened.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. I left off prefixes like San [Francisco], Santa [Barbara], and Los [Angeles].

VIII: Roscoe and Abby’s Children

            I got an e-mail from Roscoe – he wrote just as he promised he would.  Here’s what he said.

Dear David,

            Greetings from Brazil!  This is just a note to thank you for everything, and to let you know that I got here all right and everything is OK.

            When the ship arrived at the Port of Santarém I got off as quickly as I could.  I got myself out of the hold and up on deck, and then slithered over the guard rail and into the water before anyone could stop me.  Anacondas are big but we can move fast when we have to!  Diving into the Amazon River at last was one of the greatest moments of my life!  I am so grateful to you for making it possible.

            The Amazon right at the docks of Santarém is kind of polluted with garbage and plastic and diesel fuel, so I got away from the city right away.  Within the first ten minutes I caught my first fish in nine years – a real Brazilian fish – my, it was delicious!  It tasted like home, the way it was before they captured me and my American adventure began.  It feels so good to be back home! 

            At Santarém another big river, called the Tapajós, joins the Amazon, so I thought I would try my luck there.  The Tapajós leads to a whole network of smaller rivers that pass through the jungles of the Amazon Basin, with hardly any people and no cities at all, and that’s where I decided to stay.  Hunting here is easy and lots of fun, and there are so many different kinds of prey!  And it is great to be able to swim again.  Plus I found a whole colony of anacondas.  I had been away so long I was a little uncertain in the Anacondan language at first, but it came back to me quickly.  So I have friends, and plenty to do.  I have even met a lady anaconda I really like, and we have had some fish together – who knows what may happen there? 

            I miss you, and the snakes in the house, and music, and the American newspapers.  But the move was the right thing to do.  It took a long time for me to get over the shock of the capture, and the glass box, and it was so important for me to have a safe, quiet space to heal from that.  But I’m over it now, thanks to your help, and I feel like I’m finally living the way I was meant to live!

            Please give my best wishes to your niece Arianna.  She didn’t see me when she was at your house, but I saw her – I hid in the hall closet so I wouldn’t frighten her, and watched through a crack in the door.  Such a lovely young girl – so smart and funny!  You must be very proud of her.

            Love,

            Roscoe

So that feels good.  Now here’s what happened with Abby’s snakelets. 

            As I mentioned in an earlier letter, there were two problems with having these 11 new mud snakes.  First, there were hardly enough mice and cockroaches in the back yards on my block to support the snakes we already had, even with the meatballs I supplied and Roscoe gone.  Doubling the number of hunters would wipe out the prey in a short time.  And then what?  Could we take over the back yards in the next block?  But that would mean snakes crossing the road.  Could they hunt in the park?  Not really – they would be exotic species there (meaning animals from outside), which would mess up the balance of hunters and prey already in the park.  Whenever new animals are introduced into a wild environment there is disruption and trouble.  Plus how would they get there and back, on the bus?  Snakes can’t drive.

            And there was the second problem of there suddenly being more mud snakes than all the other kinds together.  Could they all get along, especially without Roscoe for a leader?   Snakes under pressure don’t always act peacefully.  But Abby’s snakelets were born in my house – I couldn’t just kick them out, especially with nowhere for them to go.  None of this was their fault – they had just been born.  What should we do?   

            It was Francisco who figured out the answer.  It was sort of like Roscoe’s answer.  Francisco talked with Abby about her old home, before she came to live with me.  Abby came from the swamps of Alabama, where mud snakes are not exotic but native.  It’s hot and wet and steamy there, with is lots to eat, and mud snakes everywhere so another dozen wouldn’t change things very much.  Francisco got the idea of going back to his mother’s home country, and he talked to the others.  “What kind of life would it be for us here,” he asked. “Not much different from the zoo, except we wouldn’t be locked in.  But this is no way for a mud snake to live – there’s no mud, and no swamp, and no fish!  And it’s cold!  Let’s go find some nice warm mud!”

            He was right, of course, and most of his brothers and sisters agreed.  It was much better coming from them than from me.  Of the 11 new mud snakes, nine voted to go to Alabama.  Only Diego and Shasta wanted to stay – Maria de Gracia promised to teach them to read, and they didn’t want to miss out on that (the others didn’t care about reading).  And Shasta, at least, liked fog better than she thought she would like mud.  So they stayed behind.  All of us (and maybe especially Abby) were really glad that two of the new mud snakes stayed with us.

            I ordered an Uber for the others to take them to Muddy Swamp State Park in Alabama, and sent them off with a big plastic bin full of meatballs and three dozen eggs and a whole case of Diet Coke (the driver promised to open the bottles for them).  This solved the hunting problem and also the other problem, because that left only three mud snakes: Abby, Diego and Shasta.  The others promised to write but I doubt they will, as they don’t know how, and they were only with us for a few weeks.  But they’ll be fine.

IX: Lakshmi’s Music

Who would have thought a snake could play music?  But Lakshmi taught herself to do it all by herself.  Snakes (except for roscoe) don’t usually care about music, but Lakshmi has always been different.  While the other snakes hunted in the back yards, she mainly just ate the meatballs and kibble I provided and spent most of her time indoors listening to music on YouTube.  I encouraged her, maybe because she reminded me of my own childhood, when I didn’t care for sports and preferred to spend my time reading. 

Lakshmi listened to all kinds of music, but what she liked most were the cello and the saxophone.  She dreamed of being able to make music herself on instruments like these, but both instruments were impossible without hands – no way even to hold them, much less do the difficult and complicated fingering.  Lakshmi told me she felt like my friend Hilary Price’s snake Leonard, who wanted to knit but couldn’t find a place to start.

But then one day she came across a video of an old-time performing seal.  They used to play tunes on sets of air horns by biting squeeze-bulbs or pushing electric buttons.  Films of these performances are rare now, but here’s the one Lakshmi found:  https://tinyurl.com/arianna412aThe horns come 36  seconds into the video.

Lakshmi watched over and over as the seals worked the air horns, and thought she could do that.  She asked me to find her a set of air horns like the seals used.  But performing seal acts are not popular any more, and so these are not easy to find, and to find a set of horns tuned to a proper scale is almost impossible.  So I asked if an electronic keyboard would do.  Lakshmi was very pleased – a keyboard was more than she had hoped for. 

So I ordered one for her, and when it came she quickly taught herself to play simple melodies like Happy Birthday and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  Soon she was learning more complicated music she found on YouTube – songs like Stardust, Danny Boy, Potato Head Blues, and many others.1 but it was still not satisfying to play only melody, one note at a time.

Her breakthrough came with a video showing how to play a Mozart minuet on the piano.  This was classical music, 250 years old and still played often today.  This video showed that only two notes were being played at the same time, a high one and a low one.  Lakshmi figured out that she could hit both these notes herself, the high note with her nose and the low note with her tail.2 this would be a good time to watch that video: https://tinyurl.com/arianna412j

Lakshmi played the Mozart minuet beautifully for me, and found a lot of other music on YouTube she could play two notes at a time.  She was very good at being able to play what she heard, and at reducing more complicated  music to two notes at a time.  She wanted to try three and four notes at a time, and could maybe have done this with another snake to help.  Diego did help sometimes, and so did Alejandra and Xzrwжmkяq  and DeWayne – sometimes.  But they were only doing Lakshmi a favor – like most snakes they were not much interested in music, and so they lost interest quickly and wouldn’t practice or rehearse and went out to hunt.  Lakshmi couldn’t depend on them. 

But I bought her a digital sampler, and that solved the problem.  Now she could play the nose notes, record them on the sampler, and then play the tail notes and the nose recording and at the same time, so all four notes could be heard at once.  She was accompanying herself!  After that there was no stopping Lakshmi (not that I wanted to stop her).  She plays very difficult music now, mixing as many samples as she needs.  If the music is too fast for her, she records at half speed and then plays it back at double speed.  She works the electronic controls like the keys, with her nose and tail. 

Also you can set electric keyboards to sound like all kinds of instruments other than a piano: a cello, for instance, or a saxophone, the instruments Lakshmi had always wanted to play.3 and with a sampler and the kind of keyboard I got for her, Lakshmi can record any kind of sound (even a sneeze or a burp) and play it on the keyboard as musical notes, high or low, whatever she wants.  So she  has been making songs out of hisses.  You have to hear them to believe how good they sound.

Now she is adding percussion for rhythm, and is creating a piece for a jazz trio, two notes at a time.  Most people (including me), although they have ten fingers, cannot play even one part of a jazz trio – Lakshmi can play all three with only a nose and a tail, and some electronic equipment.  It shows what someone can do with talent and determination and patient practice.

X: Buried Treasure

This has been a great week for my snakes.  Cottontail and Peter were burrowing in the back yard when Peter came across something hard.  What was it?  They dug around it and after a while figured out that it was some kind of metal thing.  Of course they couldn’t lift it, but Cottontail came to get me and I lifted it out of the ground.  It was an old brass box, about the size of a cell phone but thicker.  I pried the box open and found nine gold coins inside. 

The coins were all the same.  They looked like this (front and back).  Every American coin has a date on it saying when it was made, and these were made in 1854, 165 years ago.  In 1854 there was nothing but sand dunes where my house is now.  But I don’t know when the coins were buried there, or who buried them, or why.  I guess we’ll never know that. 

When the coins were made they were worth a dollar each.  But coins like these are hard to find now, so I thought they would be worth more.  I took them downtown to Susie’s Rare Coin Shop, and I was right – Susie offered me $500 each for them!  So I sold the coins to Susie for $4500 (500 times 9 is 4500), and let her have the box too, as a present. 

So now the question was: whose money was this?  We had a big meeting to discuss it.

  • Some of the snakes thought it should all belong to Peter, because he found the coins.
  • Some thought it belonged to Cottontail and Peter together, because they were digging together.
  • Some said all 14 snakes should share the money as a group, and use it for things they could all enjoy.
  • Some thought each snake should get a share of the money for herself (or himself) alone; others agreed but thought I should get a share too. $4500 divided among 14 snakes and one uncle comes to $300 each.
  • And some thought I should get it all, because the coins were found on my land, and they were there long before I had any snakes.

We talked it over but we could not agree.  So I made the decision.  I would take one share for myself, because it was my land.  So I took out $300, and later used the money to buy 11 heraldry books: three in German, two each in Dutch and Italian, and one each in Portuguese, Serbian, Danish and Greek.  I was very happy with my share.

That left $4200, which is a lot of money for 14 snakes who don’t even have pockets.  I decided they could use the money only for things they could all agree about.  The first thing was easy: they wanted to give one fourth of the money to a snake charity.  They thought the best one was the Snake Rescue Fund, which finds good homes for pet snakes people leave in the park, but who can’t manage by themselves.  So I gave the Snake Rescue Fund $1050, which left $3150.

Some of the tropical snakes wanted me to build a heated clubhouse in the back yard.  Others did not want to give up hunting land to have a clubhouse, but understood the need for a warm place in the winter (and it can get cold here in the summer too).  So we agreed that I would spread out electric blankets under the stairs, and in one of my storerooms; these blankets would have controls a snake could work with her nose.  I bought two really nice soft electric blankets for $50 each ($100 total), which brought us down to $3050.

The small snakes asked for a runway so they could get up and down the stairs more easily.  So I had a narrow runway built for them out of wood, covered with bathroom tile so they wouldn’t get splinters.  This cost $450 − $300 for wood and paint and tiles and nails and glue, and sandpaper to make it smooth, and $150 to the builder for her work.  Now we had $2500 left.

Then Aretha suggested a statue of Roscoe for the back yard.  Everyone was very pleased with this idea, even Diego and Shasta who never knew Roscoe, but appreciated how much everyone who knew him loved him.  So I got a local artist to make a statue of Roscoe out of California redwood, which stands up well in wet weather.  She worked from a photograph of him.  I paid $1000 for the statute, and it looks great.

Now we had $1500 left.  We had spent two thirds of the money in less than a week.  The snakes started arguing over how to spend the rest, but I said wait, we don’t have to spend every dollar now, we can save some for later.  This was a new idea for my snakes, who were not used to the idea of saving for later, but they agreed.  So now my snakes are the richest animals in the neighborhood, because together they have $1500, and none of the other animals have any money at all.

XI: Abelard

            As if 14 snakes were not enough, now I have a gecko too.  Geckos are lizards, and look a lot like snakes with four legs.  I wasn’t there when Abelard the gecko arrived, but Maria de Gracia told me what happened.  Some of the snakes had gone to one of my storerooms to hang out on the electric blanket, and found Abelard already there soaking up the warmth. They were not pleased to find an outsider in their territory. “Who are you?” asked Shasta. “You’re not a snake!”

            “True,” said Abelard, “I am not a snake, I am a gecko. But I am a reptile like yourself.  Be kind to strangers, for kindness will bring you good fortune.”  

            This was startling to the snakes – they had never heard anyone talk like this before.  DeWayne asked, “Are you planning to live here?”  Abelard answered “Who knows? I am here now – tomorrow we will know if I am still here.” 

            Olga, always practical, said what was on a lot of snakely minds.  “There aren’t that many mice,” she said.  “You are going to eat our mice!”  But Abelard answered. “You get free meatballs.  You get unlimited kibble.” (Olga wondered: how did he know this?)  “And as for hunting,” Abelard continued, “do you see that moth on the ceiling?”  None of them had noticed the moth, but when they looked up there was a big one. “Watch this.”

            And then Abelard walked calmly up to the wall, continued walking at the same pace directly up the wall, and at the top of the wall continued walking upside-down across the ceiling! He walked so silently that the moth did not notice him until suddenly he was in Abelard’s mouth, and the gecko gulped him down.  Abelard called down from the ceiling “O snakes, could you have caught this moth? Are there any mice on the ceiling?  Don’t worry, I won’t interfere with your hunt.” The snakes were really impressed, as much by his strange way of speaking as by his hunting on the ceiling, so they agreed to let him stay, at least for a while.  

            Snakes have no tradition of discussing their troubles with each other, the way dogs and rabbits and monkeys and people do.  Unhappy snakes just go off by themselves and mope – they don’t want to talk about it!  Or sometimes they get angry and aggressive and pick fights.  Except with rare souls like Roscoe, I couldn’t help much – I meant well, but I didn’t have that special reptile point of view.  But Abelard helped a lot of the snakes when they were unhappy.  He would spend a long time just listening; sometimes he would advise them (he spoke several snake languages as well as French and Spanish), and he could interpret their dreams.  So the snakes came to love him, and rely on him for help.  I bought an extra electric blanket and set it up in a secluded corner so he could meet with snakes privately.  It became the consulting room for Abelard’s counseling practice.  I have to say he even helped me with some problems I was having.1

            He hasn’t joined our household permanently, and sometimes disappears.  But he is often here, and always welcome. Sometimes he comes with us on outings.  There is much we have not learned about Abelard.  Walking on the ceiling we figured out – specialized toe pads with billions of tiny hairs on them too small to see.  But why the French accent?  He is very mysterious about that.  He is not actually European at all, but a western banded gecko (Coleonyx variegatus), native to California.  In fact he grew up in Los Angeles County.  I asked him why he came up here, so far north of his regular range.  He said it was too hard to find parking in Los Angeles.

            Abelard is a wise and sophisticated animal – what the snakes accept as the way life is, that they can’t do anything about, he understands as one just way of being among many, and knows that the way we think controls how we feel.  This gives him a way of looking at the snakes’ problems that lets him help them.  He has given me much insight both into my snakes and into myself, and also some deep secrets of the Way of the Reptile, which I cannot tell you about, because they are secrets.  We are all really glad to have him here as long as he wants to stay.

XII: Mousebegone

            My snakes are not natural businessmen – businesspeople?  Businessbeasts I guess you’d have to say.  They never heard of money before they came to stay with me and discovered those gold coins in the back yard.  As far as they are concerned, money is something humans think about.  They are not interested in the connection between money and all the meatballs they eat, and the electricity to keep three electric blankets running 24 hours a day.  The mice in the fields out back, and the meatballs Antoine supplies, are both just there for them, part of the richness of the world.

            However, the richness of the world does not supply them with everything they might like.  And so it seemed like a lucky day for them when Luigi, whose pizza parlor they keep free of mice and rats and cockroaches, mentioned them to his neighbor Kumar, who runs Bob’s Paradise Bar and Grill (Bob retired some years ago and lives in Florida).  Kumar called me and asked if I could spare some snakes to help him get rid of a serious mouse problem.

            So I called a meeting, as usual, and asked the snakes if they wanted to take on the Paradise Bar.  Some of them were all for it right away, but others were not so sure.  Mice are just mice wherever they are, and between Luigi’s and the back yard, and my daily rations, they were not all that excited.  But Aretha, who has a good business head (for a snake), wondered what else they might get out of it.  “What would you like?” I asked her.  “Well, mealworms, for one thing,” she said.  “I had some mealworms once and they were delicious.  But there aren’t any around here.”  Trixie, who had once done some time in a pet shop, said they used to give out mealworms with a scoop from a large bin. She remembered how good they were – about the only good thing in the pet shop – a rich, complicated flavor and a satisfying crunch.  Did they have mealworms at Bob’s?

            “And Diet Coke,” added Xzrwжmkяq, who liked Diet Coke maybe more than was really good for him.  “Bob probably has lots of Diet Coke.” They others murmured agreement.

            So it was agreed that I would provide snakes to keep Bob’s Paradise Bar and Grill free of vermin (as people think of rodents and bugs), and in return Kumar would supply, for each visit, three pounds of mealworms, one case of Diet Coke, and $50 (plus, of course, all the free mice and roaches).  I would keep half the money to help pay for the meatballs and the electric blankets, and I would add half to what was left of the coin money I was holding for the snakes.  I also ate a few mealworms myself (roasting them first), and washed them down with a Diet Coke.  Not bad! 

            Every Thursday Antoine would drive a different group of snakes out to Kumar’s to hunt.  This worked out so well that other local businesses wanted to join – the Bodega Latinoamericana, and China Garden Dim Sum, and Nikki’s Flower Shop, and the Hot Sauce Barbeque, to name just a few.  Soon Antoine was making a trip every day, and sometimes twice a day, to provide snake service to our customers.  We called our service Mousebegone.  Business was really good – so good, in fact, that mealworms and Diet Cokes were stacking up in the garage, more than the snakes could possibly eat.  And they were getting tired of mealworms, and tired of working so hard.  Snakes like to hunt, but they don’t like being rounded up at a particular hour and sent off to work a regular shift.

            So in the end we kept Luigi’s, and the Paradise Bar, and told the rest of our customers that we were going out of business.  And then things sort of went back to normal, with mealworms and Diet Cokes from Kumar as a special treat, and $575 more in the Coin Fund (that money could buy lots of mealworms and dried crickets from Amazon).  Snakes are not meant for long careers, which is probably just as well.  As Abelard keeps reminding us, what really matters is not how many mealworms we gather, but how much joy we get from every day.